The White House is mixing it up. Usually, after commando raids against terrorist targets, the leaks flow like a fine triumphalist wine. We hear just enough detail of high-level secret meetings to emphasize that everything that worked was actually the president’s idea. We may get a photo or two indicating that while considering the raids everyone was looking extremely serious.
But that’s not what happened in the wake of the raids last weekend, which did not go according to plan. According to reports, the raid in Somalia on Al-Shabab encountered heavier resistance than anticipated and presented a much higher risk of civilian casualties than expected. The raid in Libya that led the United States to grab accused embassy-bomber Anas al-Libi produced political blowback ranging from a postraid statement from the Libyan government that the mission was carried out without its knowledge to the loud criticism of influential Islamic groups that the United States had violated Libyan sovereignty.
Of course, as the president himself has asserted as recently as his U.N. General Assembly speech, the United States believes that it alone among nations has the right to ignore international law. This is the fundamental dimension of American exceptionalism, born of a comment by de Tocqueville about the “exceptional” nature of the American people and more recently made popular by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his controversial New York Times commentary attacking the American notion that we can play by our own set of rules.
Despite the storm of indignation that Putin’s piece generated from exceptional Americans everywhere, as my friend Tom Friedman of the New York Times might say, just because Putin said it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Exceptionalism is contrary to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution and the ideas that led to the founding of the country. If there is one lesson of human civilization, it is that equality under the law needs to apply to nations as well as people or else chaos and injustice ensue.
This past weekend’s raids were damaging not because one of them was not successful but because the other was. If countries feel they can swoop in and snatch up “bad guys” anywhere, whenever and however it suits them, the world would quickly fall into a state of permanent war.
It is ironic that Obama has become the avatar of exceptionalism. As a campaigner and even as a president, he has sometimes seemed resistant to the idea.
The defenses of this idea founder on the hard truth of what the United States justifies with its argument that it is freer than other countries, or that it promotes more equality, or whatever other qualities we Americans might list on our national Facebook profile. We develop drone programs that we launch against friends and enemies alike with or without their permission. Or we launch commando raids to grab bad guys. Or we assemble a global surveillance apparatus that knows no limits, violating the sovereignty and privacy of even close allies as if they had no rights at all.
It is one thing to be proud of the qualities that have enabled America to create opportunity and ensure freedom for so many. It is quite another to argue that our success in framing a great legal system on a constitution that legitimately should be a model to the world allows us to ignore the laws and rights of others.
Every nation, the defenders argue, has a right to self-defense. But every nation also faces threats of many sorts. There are bad actors and organizations small and large and even other nations that pose physical, cyber, economic, and other threats to virtually every nation on Earth. Were any threat of any scale allowed to be the justification for the violation of another nation’s sovereignty, the concept of sovereignty would evaporate in a puff of smoke.
That is why, for all but the most egregious threats, nations must rely on international law and cooperation with other authorities to defuse or manage such threats. In the wake of the national trauma of 9/11, however, we fell into a dangerous rabbit hole of dubious logic. Since we had seen one major terrorist attack by one nonstate actor that had catastrophic consequences that shook the nation (much as an attack from a sovereign nation might have done), then, the thinking went, all terrorists must potentially pose a similar threat and, therefore, the right to self-defense gives us a free pass to get “all exceptional” on bad guys or data networks everywhere.
Libi was clearly a very bad actor. But it did not serve U.S. interests to invade and ignore the laws of a country in which we had ostensibly intervened militarily to help restore the rule of law — or to send the kind of message that will create more Libis.
The White House also let slip that it is going to withhold certain aid from the Egyptian government because of its origins in a coup (and, presumably, its postcoup efforts to restore stability to that country). Set aside for a moment the fact that literally every major ally the United States has in the region, from the Israelis to the Saudis, surely object to this. The decision also underscores that the United States is selectively punishing a country, that has historically been an ally, for trying to reduce the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists, while failing to similarly go after those who have supported fundamentalist troublemakers in places like Libya — which is precisely the reason Libi was found there.
Exceptionalism has been compounded by confusing tactics for strategies — of allowing the pursuit of a few terrorists, which generates headlines when successful (and is swept under the rug when not), to distract us from forming the kind of coherent strategy to advance our interests in the Middle East and across the Islamic world. We grab a terrorist but inflame the Street that is giving birth to the next generation of terrorists. We punish an ally for acting extralegally even as we do so as a matter of policy.
As a consequence, while touting high-profile wins against individuals or the hierarchy of groups like Al-Qaida, we have watched as new threats have proliferated to the point that they are greater than ever before and our standing has deteriorated to reach new lows.
In short, we’ve become the incoherent exceptionalists. Not just a giant stomping on the rights of others and seeking to be hailed for it, but one doing so in a way that systematically undercuts us at the same time.