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The Fear of Being ‘Just Another Nation’

Andrew Bacevich dissects Brooks’ obsession with “national greatness.” This passage ties in to the failure of the foreign policy establishment I talked about yesterday:

In refusing to reckon with the results of the war he once so ardently endorsed, Brooks is hardly alone. Members of the Church of America the Redeemer, Democrats and Republicans alike, are demonstrably incapable of rendering an honest accounting of what their missionary efforts have yielded.

One thing all interventionists have in common regardless of party or other political leanings is an unshakable conviction that the policies they support must be judged according to their best intentions rather than by their consequences. Not only would they have us believe that they supported the illegal invasion of another country for the most high-minded of reasons, but they would also have us ignore the failures and costs of their war so that they can move to do the same thing somewhere else. We are told that opponents of the Iraq war have “overlearned” its lessons, as if one could gain too much understanding of why needlessly attacking another country is wrong and unwise. One of the more risible phrases of the last decade was “Iraq syndrome,” which was supposed to describe a problem that plagued our foreign policy debates in the late 2000s and early 2010s. We were expected to think that recoiling from the costly failure of an unnecessary war was a malady in need of treatment instead of a sign of basic sanity. In order to continue the pursuit of “national greatness” and the peculiarly hawkish form of “American exceptionalism” that is bound up with it, that failure has to be forgotten or minimized as much as possible, or better yet spun as a war that had been “won” until Obama came along. If there were any attempt at an honest reckoning, that would just get in the way of the next big “project” and might cause some people to begin questioning their assumptions about the U.S. role in the world.

Re-reading the recent Brooks column that Bacevich cites, I was struck by its conclusion:

Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?

Those that obsess most over “national greatness” and “American exceptionalism”–and our supposed loss of both–talk about being “just another nation” as if it were a terrible fate to be avoided at all costs. They never really explain why being “just another nation” is undesirable, except that it would take us away from our “mission.” But nothing obliges us to carry on the mission “to spread democracy and freedom,” not least since that more often serves as a pretext for destructive and aggressive policies that advance neither freedom nor democracy. That is a mission that some Americans created for the rest of us not that long ago, and it’s one that many of us never wanted.

The self-important delusion that America isn’t “just another nation” not only leads our government to interfere in the affairs of others in the name of our so-called “mission,” but it encourages doing harm to other countries with impunity. If we aren’t “just another nation,” our actions aren’t judged by the same standard that we apply to others, but are held to a different, lower one. It means that we set ourselves up as judge and sometimes executioner of other countries’ leaders while refusing to be held accountable for anything we do.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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