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Who Lost the World?

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Posted on Oct 31, 2012
cod_gabriel (CC BY 2.0)

By Ira Chernus, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

This was not simply an exaggerated indictment of presidential “weakness.” As he had on that first day, Romney was again raising a question even more crucial to any popular narrative of American foreign policy: Who’s in charge here?

After all, what’s the point of being the global superpower if not to keep control of events around the world? As Romney put it succinctly: “It is the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history.” And on that most crucial count, he insisted, Obama had failed dismally and a U.S. ambassador had paid for that failing with his life.

A Bipartisan Mythology

The debates gave Romney a chance to sharpen his attack. In the second of them, Obama deftly deflected the charges about Libya (though he never actually answered them). By the time the third debate rolled around, Romney’s strategists apparently saw no benefit and lots of risk in pressing the Libyan question. But they still saw plenty of benefit in keeping the broader issue alive. So Romney rushed past Libya, saying, “We’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events.”


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He built his case using fearful images: “I see the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult… You see al-Qaeda rushing in.” Power in Washington needed to be restored to the right hands so that, wearing “the mantle of leadership,” the U.S. could “help the Middle East” turn back “the rising tide of tumult and confusion” and subdue the terrorists. 

Translation: For decades nearly all the governments in the Middle East, the energy heartlands of the planet, were our allies (more precisely, our clients, though that word was never used in polite company). We could build up their militaries, support their autocratic regimes, and count on them to quell any expressions of anti-American sentiment. Now, under Obama, this crucial area of the world, once well under our thumb, was spinning out of control. Lose control by failing to exercise our might and we lose our safety.

Strength, control, and national security are all parts of the same package; nothing matters more to America—and Obama was letting it all go down the drain. So the Republican story went (with copious document leaks on the Libyan “cover-up” and the like from Congress). What had been considered an Obama strong suit—he was, after all, the man who took out Osama bin Laden—suddenly seemed to have been trumped.

The Democrats actually responded by putting out a remarkably similar story about (as the president termed it in the third debate) “strong, steady leadership,” which, they claimed, was preventing the Middle East from spinning out of control. In other words, we hadn’t really lost Libya at all. But that was the only point in dispute.

The debate between Republicans and Democrats wasn’t about goals in the Middle East, where support for autocratic friends like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is assumed, and both sides agree on the need for democratic elections, religious pluralism, a free press, empowering women, strengthening free enterprise capitalism, and destroying Islamist terrorists.

More broadly, both sides agree, as they have for decades, that Washington’s overriding foreign policy goal must be to shape history, control the world, and make it mirror American values and serve American interests. This mythic vision of American foreign policy is a rare example of long-term bipartisan consensus.

When I call it myth, I don’t mean it’s a lie. I mean it’s a foundational narrative of American power that expresses our most basic assumptions about the world, a story in which every nation on the planet is, theoretically, ours to lose.

To most Americans (though not to much of the rest of the world), this narrative does not reflect sheer hubris and intoxication with imperial power. It’s just good common sense. Throughout our history, at the heart of the dominant national mythology has been the assumption that the U.S. should be the world’s “locomotive” and all the other nations “the caboose” (as President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, once said).  The reason for this was simple (at least to Americans): we were the first and greatest nation founded on the universal moral truths that are supposedly self-evident to any reasonable person.

Sure, controlling the world would serve our self-interest in all sorts of tangible ways. However, our primary self-interest, so the myth maintains, always was and always will be the moral improvement—perhaps even perfection—of the entire world. By serving ourselves we serve all humanity.

The Fiercest Political Battle of All

The only question worth debating, then, is how we can use our preponderant power and wealth most shrewdly to maintain effective control. Most Americans expect their president to know the answer. At the same time, most Americans worry that he might not.  A more recent pillar of the bipartisan narrative, the myth of homeland insecurity, suggests the opposite. 

According to that myth, no matter how much military strength we have or control we exert, there is always “a rising tide of tumult” somewhere that threatens our national security. At every moment, somewhere in the world, we have something crucial to lose.  The name of the threat can change with surprising ease. But the peril must always be there. It’s essential to the story.

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