Glenn Greenwald, in that way he has, asks the toughest question about American exceptionalism. Yes, it's clear Obama believes in the unique role of the US in global politics, and world history, despite the Big Lie from Romney et al. But do we all mean the same thing when we talk of this idea? And is this more than mere national solipsism and myth?
It's easy to see where Romney, for example, gets his belief. Mormonism is the only all-American religion, placing Jesus in America itself ("I just got crucified, you guys"). But for Christians, the notion of God preferring one land-mass or population, apart from the Jewish people from whom the Messiah came, is obviously heretical. As a Catholic, I see no divine blessing for any country, and the notion that God would make such worldly distinctions strikes me as surreal as it did when I first wrapped my head around the phrase "Church of England". If God is God, one island on one planet in a minor galaxy is surely the same as any other, and the truth about our universe surely cannot be reduced to one country's patriotism. Yes, we can ask, as Lincoln did, for God's blessing. But seeking God's blessing is not the same as being God's country - with all the hubristic aggression that can lead to.
Some Straussians see Lincoln as the Second Founder and the abolition of slavery as the return of the West to natural rights. And it certainly seems true that in Lincoln's words and America's example, key ideas about human equality and dignity gained momentum - and you can hear those ideas today in the mouths of a new Arab generation, in a culture so alien to our own it is close to impossible to understand in its complexity. What deeper proof that these ideas are universal and true?
But this also reveals the limits of American exceptionalism. If America's ideals are universal, they cannot be reduced to the ownership of one country. And that country's actual history - as opposed to Bachmannite mythology - is as flawed as many others. Why, after all, did America need a Second Founding under Lincoln - almost a century after it was born? Which other advanced country remained so devoted to slavery until the late nineteenth century? Which other one subsequently replaced slavery with a form of grinding apartheid for another century? Besides, much of the thought that gave us the American constitution can be traced back to European thinkers, whether in Locke or Montesquieu or the Enlightenment in general. Seeing America as the sole pioneer of human freedom is to erase Britain's unique history, without which America would not exist. It is to erase the revolutionary ideas of the French republics. It's historically false.
But was the discovery of America some kind of divine Providence? The Puritans certainly thought so. And the blessing of a vast continental land mass with huge resources is certainly rare in human history. But, of course, that land mass was available so easily because of the intended and unintended genocide of those who already lived there - which takes the edge off the divine bit, don't you think? Call me crazy (and they do) but my concept of God does not allow for God's blessing of genocide as a means for one country's hegemony over the earth.
This is not to say that America doesn't remain, by virtue of its astonishing Constitution, a unique sanctuary for human freedom. We are freer here in terms of speech than in most other advanced countries, cowed by p.c. laws and restrictions. We are freer here in labor and capital than most other countries. To feel pride in this is natural. It is why I love this place and yearn to be one of its citizens. And the vast wealth of an entire continent, unleashed by freedom's flourishing, gave this land of liberty real and awesome global power, which it used to vanquish the two great evils of the last century - Nazism and Communism. This is the noble legacy so many now seek to perpetuate, with good intentions and benign hearts, despite the disastrous and costly interventions of the last decade.
But as the 20th Century wore on, this kind of power had its usual effect, and the establishment of a massive global military machine, as Eisenhower so presciently noted, created the risk of a permanent warfare sustained by domestic interests. Throw into the mix a bevy of intellectuals busy constructing rationales for a uni-polar world - on the neocon right and the neoliberal left - and we slowly became, at best, the indispensable nation and at worst, a benign imperial bully.
In other words, America's ideals are not unique to America, and America's success led it to the same temptations of great powers since ancient times. America's exceptional freedom and exceptional wealth did not exempt it from unexceptional human nature or the unexceptional laws of history. To believe anything else is to engage in nationalist idolatry. In retrospect, Vietnam was a form of madness brought on by paranoia. In Iraq, America actually presided over 100,000 civilian deaths as it failed to perform even minimal due diligence in invading and occupying another country (while barely a few years later, we invoked - with no irony or even memory - the risk of mass murder as a reason to invade another country). And US forces are still there - and the same alliance that gave us the Libya campaign will surely soon be arguing for extending their presence as the Potemkin democracy slowly collapses. In Afghanistan, the graveyard of so many empires, we are busy sending drones to hit targets with inevitable civilian casualties in a war that has no end, no discernible goal, and has now lasted longer than any war in the country's history. When America finds itself in wars where it can accidentally kill nine children gathering firewood, it seems somewhat abstract to talk uncritically of America's moral superiority. And when America has also crossed the line into legalized torture, and refuses to acknowledge or account for it, let alone hold the war criminals responsible, it has lost the moral standing to dictate human rights to the rest of the world.