American Exceptionalism Is Incompatible With American Militarism

The “National Constitution Center” presented John McCain with a “Liberty Medal”.

They’ve presented the same award to both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

It’s like words don’t even have any meaning anymore.

Like the Nobel Peace Prize going to Obama, Arafat, and Kissinger, such recipients diminish the significance of such awards by divorcing them from what they are supposed to represent.

If there’s one thing that McCain has worked tirelessly towards relatively consistently, it’s prioritizing his view of national security over the constitution and liberty as a general rule when he views the two as in conflict. He comes from a school of neocon thought that seems to believe not only that “the constitution is not a suicide pact“, but that nearly every time it restrains government action it’s akin to death rather than fulfilling it’s purpose, set by and attempting to protect the American ideal.

Granted, there are exceptions. Believing as I do that he deserves the benefit of the doubt on his motivation and intentions rather than labeling him a super-villain, as many of his detractors seem to do all too often, demands it. One such exception was his opposition to Guantanamo Bay and indefinite detention while running for President in 2008. Outside of Ron Paul, he was the only candidate in a crowded Republican primary to do so, and I don’t believe it was a purely political posture. After all, it went against his own campaign’s narrative of the neocon warrior who would do everything necessary to keep us safe from terrorism (as long as that thing involved the application of force).

Not that his intention matters much. The road to hell is paved with them. Milton Friedman famously said that “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it“.

Besides, McCain as a man is largely irrelevant. He’s 81 and nursing a brain tumor, unlikely to ever again run for office. Neither Arizonian nor American voters need to determine the state of his soul or whether to give him yet another term. But what is still relevant is his ideas, which have impacted the thoughts of many others and will outlive him.

Chief among these is that American is exceptional, and that the world as a general rule benefits from our interventions. “We believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity.“, McCain said during his acceptance speech.

I believe that America is exceptional, but that has nothing to do with our people, our land, or our military… and everything to do with our founding ideals. Our nation is young, yet our constitution is the longest surviving federal constitution in the world, crafted by exceptional men. There are actions which made them hypocrites, from slavery to women’s suffrage to their view of Native Americans. But the lofty ideas they expressed, whether they lived up to them or not, are what defined our nation and made it unlike others, especially others of their time.

Obama famously quipped, when asked about his view of American exceptionalism, that “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This, of course, misses the point that the American experience is unique and unlike in fundamental ways the experiences of others, or else it wouldn’t be exceptional.

But this exceptionalism isn’t manifest in manifest destiny. It is not on display in our nation’s actions beyond our shores. If anything, our actions overseas during McCain’s thirty years in the Senate have been by and large opposed to our constitution and what made America exceptional in the first place.

This is not jut true in a constitutional law sense focused on the letter of the law, or things like the expansion of executive power and the rise of the imperial presidency. Yes, the congressional power to declare war usurped is a violation of their war powers expressed in article 1 section 8. But it’s actually seen more acutely when compared to the actual spirit of the law and the reasons for it’s existence. As Madison wrote “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature.

Further, regardless of who was determining the question of war, the use of our military overseas was not seen as a projection of strength, much less a virtue of America. It was not seen as advisable policy to, in Wilson’s view, “make the world safe for Democracy“. On the contrary, consensus seemed to be best summed up by John Quincy Adams in his foreign policy speech famous for popularizing “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”…

[America] is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….”

If Quincy councils that America merely champion liberty at home, and that liberty suffers both here and abroad with American involvement in the affairs of other nations, which is antithetical to the concept… what does McCain believe? In his view, “We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world.” In Quincy’s view, we are those custodians, but to be their champions abroad is neither advisable or compatible with custodianship of this nation, finishing his remarks on monsters abroad with

“[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.

McCain, by contrast, by and large defines himself by his contributions to US foreign policy seeking glory in dominion, and after thirty years of searching, still doesn’t seem to have found a war we shouldn’t have been in nor a region we shouldn’t be involved in. He seems to feel that America’s exceptionalism is based upon our military contributions to the “international order“, rather than the example that we set domestically. In his words, “The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.

Does the world benefit from America’s interventions? Certainly, I can see the case for many of our interventions having contributed to the benefit of the world as a whole. World War Two is the prime example of a time when America has done some good, and coincidentally that was the last officially declared war America fought. But it’s just as true that many interventions have had the opposite effect–they’ve made the world less safe and less stable.

During the time that McCain has been a Senator, we’ve been involved in the Iran-Iraq war, invaded Panama, fought the gulf war against who we had previously helped, intervened in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo… and those are all just the wars during McCain’s terms before the 21st Century. Moving forward, you can add in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, etc.

Afghanistan was the only one of those wars where we responded to an attack. Overall, the middle east seems (unbelievably) even more dangerous and less stable than before our involvement, which seems to consist of toppling secular strongmen and leaving a vacuum for religious fundamentalists to exploit. Our involvement in the Balkans a couple of decades ago hasn’t left the region stable enough for the peacekeepers to have left yet. Haiti and Somalia are still shitholes. The McCain view that America’s military is essentially an effective force for good in nearly every conflict seems completely unsupported by the facts.

When he claims that our country is indispensable to “international peace and stability”, one has to wonder where that’s what our military has contributed to during his time in the Senate, exactly. Maybe Panama’s proven itself better for our involvement in the long run? I don’t know, but the Monroe Doctrine is far too limited for him.

The constitutional case and the founder’s case against war, especially the way we’ve waged it without the consent of congress for decades isn’t militarism’s only corruption of the American ideal. After all, our nation is more than just a piece of parchment. Our country was founded on a collection of factors, including the belief in the individual over the collective, self-rule, opposition to monarchy, nobility, and empire, the classical liberalism of Locke and Smith, support for individual rights and dignity undisturbed by practices like general warrants, and a government so un-intrusive that a 3% tax on a breakfast beverage might just be reason to pick up a flintlock and rebel.

In the words of Bourne, “war is the health of the state”. War abroad often coincides with diminished civil liberties at home, which in our current wars includes data collection so expansive it’s akin to generalized warrants, militarized police forces, NDAAs which allow for indefinite detention without charge or trial without anything recognized as a fair court, and a myriad of rules written for the conflict which would never pass in peacetime that rarely go away once the conflict does.

On the economic front, constant war requires a high amount of taxation–whether direct, borrowed, or inflated. It harms trade between nations, displaces labor, effects immigration policies, adds to GDP while wasting resources better spent on market desires, and expands the role of the state in the economy as a whole.

In other words, even with the Constitution put aside, militarism attacks not just nations, but American ideals with the impact of it’s very existence.

The most newsworthy passage of McCain’s acceptance speech, however, was his parting shot at the alt-right.

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

The irony here, of course, is that McCain is accusing others of nationalism as an insult, despite having long ago conflated nationalistic tendencies with patriotism. It’s the domain of the American patriot to support the American ideal, which sometimes means opposing the American nation-state when it strays from those ideals. It’s the domain of nationalists to believe that nearly everything a country does is right, because it’s done by that country.

The alt-right may betray their economic ignorance and lack of conservatism through their promotion of “economic nationalism”. However, the neocon worldview exemplified by McCain, uses nationalistic notions to maintain that America is indispensable to the world, never wrong, and tasked as a nation with spreading it’s ideas not through it’s example, but by applying force to monsters abroad.

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