'What Spam is to a pig'

Now up on our homepage is Andrew J. Bacevich's commentary on the Obama administration's 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS), which was delivered to Congress on February 6. Bacevich isn't impressed:

Can there be a more thankless task than assembling such texts? Paying homage to clichés ancient and contemporary; nodding to every constituency, large or small, lest anyone feel slighted; claiming to know history’s very purposes, while taking care to package such claims in bland (and therefore incontrovertible) generalities; inserting anticipatory rebuttals to the inevitable sniping of partisan critics: These number among the essential elements. Satisfying them necessarily results in a product that is to expository prose what Spam is to a pig: highly processed and short on nutrition.

Bacevich digs through the Spam to uncover the document's underlying logic, which is as evident in its omissions as in its "highly processed" rhetoric. He is especially hard on the NSS's flourishes of self-congratulation:

As measured by “might, technology, and geostrategic reach,” U.S. military forces are “unrivaled in human history.” More accurately: While the United States undoubtedly possesses enormous military power, it has yet to figure out how to translate armed might into politically purposeful outcomes achieved at reasonable cost. Time and again, vast expenditures of lives, treasure, and political capital yield results other than those intended.

The United States is “embracing constraints on our use of new technologies like drones.” A bit of a stretch, that. More accurately: Through its shadowy campaign of targeted assassination, the Obama administration is erasing long-established conceptions of sovereignty while removing constraints on the use of force. Something of a novelty when inaugurated by George W. Bush, drone strikes have now become routine—about as newsworthy as traffic accidents. In effect, Washington claims the prerogative of converting lesser countries like Yemen or Somalia into free-fire zones. What these precedent-setting actions imply for the future is anybody’s guess. One thing seems likely: As drones proliferate with astonishing speed, others are likely to avail themselves of the same prerogative.

Bacevich's response to the NSS has much in common with Jackson Lears's review of Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices in the London Review of Books. (The review's title, "We came, we saw, he died," is Clinton's verbatim response to the news that Gaddafi had been killed.) Both Bacevich and Lears are skeptical of the neoliberal assumptions behind the Obama administration's foreign policy, assumptions that Obama and Clinton share. But, in Lears's view, Clinton's version of these assumptions is slightly less nuanced and slightly more hawkish than Obama's. Both Obama and Clinton lean heavily on the idea of American exceptionalism, which can be used to justify our double standards and plaster over the wounds we've inflicted—on others and ourselves—by waging foolish wars. Obama at least has the decency and sophistication to express reservations about this idea, even if these reservations have had too little effect on his policies. Clinton, by contrast, is an enthusiast. She, too, may have some of Obama's reservations; if so, she's keeping them to herself. Her book is full of rah-rah boilerplate about America's obligations as the world's midwife of Progress. In her capacity as Secretary of State, Clinton was eager to warn foreign leaders that they had better become more like us or prepare to be buried by history. As Lears writes:

Clinton’s outlook epitomises the bipartisan wisdom of the Washington foreign policy establishment, which claims to offer a pragmatic centrist alternative to the extremes of right and left. Yet the centrists turn out to be at least as ideologically driven as the zealots they deplore. The core of their ideology is the belief that the US has a uniquely necessary role to play in leading the world towards an inevitably democratic (and implicitly capitalist) future. The process is foreordained but can be helped along through neoliberal policy choices. This muddle of determinism and freedom is a secular residue of providentialist teleology, held with as much religious fervour and as little regard for contrary evidence as other dogmatic faiths derided by self-styled liberal pragmatists.

Only a secular providentialist could ask what it means ‘to be on the right side of history’. Clinton poses this question as if it were a guide to policy. The notion that history has a discernible direction, and that nations must align themselves with it, is a relic of the grand historical narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries. Such views are no longer held by serious historians but continue to animate the pundits and politicians in Washington. Clinton often appeals to teleology in Hard Choices: she repeatedly recalls a speech she gave in Qatar, just before the uprising in Tahrir Square, when she told the assembled Arab leaders that they must adopt political and economic reforms or their entire region would continue ‘sinking into the sand’ – the Ozymandian fate of autocrats in an irresistibly democratic age.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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