American Exceptionalism as Magical Thinking

A remarkable exchange took place last Wednesday at the State Department. Asked about the International Criminal Court’s decision to launch an investigation into Israeli and Palestinian crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, State Department spokesman Ned Price began dutifully reciting his lines: “We firmly oppose and are disappointed by the ICC prosecutor’s announcement of an investigation into the Palestinian situation. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly.”

Price wasn’t making an argument—he never explained why Israeli security necessitates impunity for war crimes, or why the court’s investigation is unfair. He was reading a script. He sounded like a Soviet commissar delivering statistics on the wheat harvest.

Then Matt Lee of the Associated Press asked a jarringly simple question: “Where should the Palestinians go to get accountability?”

As if someone had hit play on a tape recorder, Price discharged additional, pre-approved, snippets of foreign policy-speak—“Of course, the United States is always going to stand up for human rights… you have heard us continue to endorse a two state solution”—none of which answered Lee’s question. It reminded me of a passage from George Orwell: “A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved.”

Meanwhile, Lee kept asking, over and over, “Where do they go?”

The two men were talking different languages. Lee was speaking English. Price was speaking American Exceptionalism.

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The essence of American exceptionalism is that the United States possesses a virtue so intrinsic that it cannot be falsified by events. Think about last Wednesday’s exchange. As permanent non-citizens under Israeli control, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under a government that is not accountable to them. (According to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, less than one percent of Palestinian complaints against Israeli soldiers result in prosecution). By providing Israel virtually unconditional military aid and diplomatic support, the United States underwrites this unjust and unaccountable control. Now that Palestinians are petitioning the International Criminal Court, the US opposes that form of accountability too. So Lee asked: “Where should the Palestinians go to get accountability?” To which Price answered: “Of course, the United States is always going to stand up for human rights.”

That’s American exceptionalism at work. It’s an assertion not of fact but of faith. If American exceptionalism rested on empirical evidence, spokespeople like Price would modulate their assertions based on America’s actions. The less morally America behaved, the less they would claim that American behavior is exceptionally moral. In reality, it’s often the reverse. Advocates of American exceptionalism greet contrary evidence not by dialing back their declarations of American virtue but by ramping them up. In 2004, when news broke that US soldiers had tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison, George W. Bush declared, “This is not America.” National security adviser Condoleezza Rice asserted that, “Americans do not do this to other people.” They weren’t denying what Americans had done. They were denying that what Americans do has any bearing on what America is. Similarly, in 2019, after Donald Trump had pulled out of the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal, praised and practiced torture, threatened North Korea with nuclear war, and slapped tariffs on America’s closest allies, Jake Sullivan—now Biden’s National Security Advisor—penned an essay making the “case for a new American exceptionalism.” Trump’s malevolence had only made the doctrine of American benevolence more necessary. Price demonstrated a similar logic last Wednesday. Faced with Lee’s irrefutable assertion that the United States is preventing Palestinians from seeking human rights, he responded that “the United States is always going to stand up for human rights.”

This magical thinking is a serious problem for US foreign policy. It’s a problem because it blinds American policymakers to how the United States looks to non-Americans who, quite naturally, judge the US not on its self-conception but on its actions.

Take America’s relationship with Iran. For the last seventy-five years, the United States has done little to convince Iranians that the US acts in exceptionally virtuous ways. In 1953, the CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected Iranian prime minister. For the next quarter-century, as Mehdi Hasan has chronicled, the US backed the Shah, whose dictatorship tortured and killed thousands of political dissidents. Then, after the Islamic revolution in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, the US not only sold Iraq arms but helped it target Iranian troops with chemical weapons. In 1988, the US accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner carrying 290 people. In 2002, Tehran played a crucial role in helping the US assemble a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, only to see the Bush administration declare it part of the “axis of evil.” In 2010, the Obama administration convinced the world’s major economies to essentially embargo Iran, largely shutting off the delivery of even lifesaving medicines. To get those sanctions lifted, Tehran in 2015 agreed to curb its nuclear program—only to see the Trump administration pull out of the agreement and reimpose the embargo three years later.

Given this record, one might think that Joe Biden—who claims to want to revive the nuclear deal—would have begun his presidency by taking concrete steps to prove the US is a reliable negotiating partner. After all, as ugly and brutal a regime as the Islamic Republic is, it was the US—not Tehran—that first violated the nuclear deal. Iran only stopped complying a year after America broke its word.

Since Tehran desperately wants the sanctions relief it was promised, Biden could have temporarily waived some restrictions on Iran’s ability to sell oil, supported Iran’s request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund or helped it retrieve assets frozen by US allies like South Korea and Germany. A full lifting of sanctions might still have required negotiations, which enabled the two countries to agree on what exactly compliance entails. But by making an initial gesture, Biden would have acknowledged that the US had to earn back the credibility it has lost.

Instead, Biden demanded that Iran go first. Only once Tehran adhered to the deal would the US begin to lift sanctions. When Iran refused, the US and its European allies began moving to condemn Iran for not meeting its nuclear obligations. Fortunately, that condemnation has now been shelved, and the US has signaled a new flexibility about the nature of talks. But Biden’s nominees keep demanding that Iran sign a new agreement that involves additional concessions—for instance, on its ballistic missile program and foreign meddling—while barely acknowledging that the US is still blatantly violating the first one.

This, too, is the magical thinking of American exceptionalism. No matter what America has done, Iran’s leaders are supposed to take America’s good-faith as self-evident. My friend Bob Wright often stresses the importance of “cognitive empathy,” the ability to imagine how America looks to its adversaries. American exceptionalism precludes that empathy because it precludes us from looking critically at ourselves.

This isn’t a new problem. In his autobiography, Ronald Reagan wrote that in his first three years as president, he “learned something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did…I’d always felt that from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that Americans were a moral people who starting at the birth of our nation had always used our power only as a force for good in the world.” American exceptionalism was something Reagan realized he had to unlearn.

To his credit, he responded with actions that made the US look less frightening. To win the trust of the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan in 1985 overruled administration hardliners and decommissioned a number of US submarines to keep the US in compliance with the SALT II arms control agreement. When Soviet troops that year killed a US soldier in East Germany, Reagan again defied hawks who demanded that he cancel a planned summit. To the contrary, he said the violence only made him want to meet Gorbachev even more. (A good lesson for Biden, who now faces pressure to not lift sanctions because Iranian-backed militias are firing at US soldiers in Iraq). In 1986, Reagan proceeded with another meeting with Gorbachev despite Moscow’s imprisonment of a US journalist. (I write about all this in my book, The Icarus Syndrome, which nobody read but I quite like). 

By this time, Reagan was being regularly chastised by hawkish journalists like Norman Podhoretz, William F. Buckley and George Will. When he signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement with Moscow in 1987, a conservative group bought newspaper ads comparing him to Neville Chamberlain.

Today, most conservatives think Reagan helped engineer the Soviet empire’s demise because of his hawkishness. But that wasn’t what many conservatives believed at the time. To the contrary, they recognized, to their horror, that in his second term Reagan had become, arguably, the most dovish president of the cold war. Without this metamorphosis, it’s less likely Gorbachev would have let Eastern Europe go free. “If Reagan had struck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986,” noted longtime Soviet ambassador to the US Anatoly Dobrynin, “Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who doesn’t want to negotiate.” The world changed because Reagan did. And one reason Reagan changed was because he reconsidered American exceptionalism.

Let’s hope Joe Biden can do the same.

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Other Things:

Speaking of Iran, I wrote an essay last week for Jewish Currents (are you subscribing yet? I’m going to keep nagging) about why Iran’s foreign policy is more similar to the foreign policies of America’s Middle Eastern allies than America’s leaders want to admit.

Last week I moderated a conversation with Professors Bashir Bashir and Leila Farshakh about their new book, The Arab and Jewish Questions.

I also moderated a discussion with Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein, journalist Sarah Posner, and Foundation for Middle East Peace president Lara Friedman on Maya’s new film about the relationship between American evangelicals and Israeli settlers, ‘Til Kingdom Come.

If you’re not sick of hearing from me by then, on March 18 I’m speaking at the George Marshall International Center about Joe Biden’s foreign policy.

On March 23 I’ll be speaking about US policy towards Israel at Virginia Commonwealth University.

If you want to know what the Israeli security establishment (as opposed to Benjamin Netanyahu) thinks of the Iran nuclear deal, read this Washington Post op-ed by former deputy chief of the general staff of the IDF Yair Golan.

If you want to know how absurd it is to try to hold Palestinian elections under occupation, read this AP story and this report in Haaretz by the legendary Amira Haas.

If you want to know how to fix American diplomacy, read this essay by former Clinton administration official (and Beinart Notebook subscriber!) Gordon Adams.

If you want to hear something sublime, by my favorite singer of all time, listen to this, by a very young Miriam Makeba.

Our next Zoom session, for paid subscribers only, will be at our regular time, Friday Noon EST. Subscribe now and we’ll also send you the video of last week’s call with Professor Rashid Khalidi.

Hope to see you on Friday,

Peter