Philippine Daily Inquirer

11:53 pm | Friday, October 11th, 2013

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In his speech last Sept. 10, postponing the vote of the US Congress on his plan to strike militarily at Syria, US President Barack Obama raised a row with Russian President Vladimir Putin over American “exceptionalism.”


Explaining why he was setting aside his previous threat for a “pinprick” strike on Syria, Obama told the American people:


“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.  But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”


Putin, who has been proposing a diplomatic solution to Syria’s internal war, quickly welcomed Obama’s move. Their accord enabled the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution requiring Syria to give up its chemical weapons, to which Syria readily acceded, thereby producing a diplomatic breakthrough. But Obama’s reference to the US being “exceptional” drew a response from Putin that caught the world’s attention.


In a letter addressed to the American people and published by the New York Times, Putin wrote:


“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions, and those still finding their way to democracy.  Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Putin may have scored a point. Nevertheless, practically all nations at certain times considered themselves “exceptional.” People of Israel, with a history that spans 2,000 years, call themselves God’s “Chosen People.” This is disputed by Israel’s Arab neighbors who consider themselves victims of Israeli expansionism. “Aren’t we also God’s children?” cried the Palestinians.


But Putin’s reproach struck a chord among many people around the world, considering the US predisposition to stamp its franchise of “democracy” on other countries, like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, to mention a few recent cases, and Vietnam in the not so distant past. Obama’s threat to punish Syria raised fears of a wider war in the Middle East, raising the specter of another oil price spiral.


However, Russia was also guilty of exceptionalism. As the head of the powerful Soviet Empire, it threatened to lead a world revolution of workers and peasants, pitting it against the United States which had emerged as the leading superpower at the end of World War II.  During the Cold War that lasted nearly 50 years, Russia and the United States almost came to nuclear blows. At one point, Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khruschev reportedly warned the West, “We will bury you!”  It’s said that what he actually said was: “History is on our side, we will dig you in.”



In any event, it was the Soviet Union that broke up in 1991. Citizens of Russia and its Soviet satellites got tired of foregoing their bread and vodka to finance their costly armaments race with America. That drove them to overthrow their communist masters.


Left the superpower, the United States glowed in its “triumphalism.” President Ronald Reagan was likened to Joshua who tumbled the walls of Jericho by the blast of trumpets. Reagan supposedly triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union by challenging its premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down these walls,” meaning the Berlin Wall, the farthest Western outpost of the Soviet Union.


Putin, an officer of the feared KGB intelligence unit during the Soviet era, called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the “geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Russia is now trying to regain its lost glory, minus its empire, while America is seeking to retain its empire despite its persistent economic problems.

In 2007-2008, the United States was hit by the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression of 1929. Millions of Americans lost their homes and their jobs. They took to the streets to protest the impoverishment of the “99 percent,” while the wealthy 1 percent walked laughing to their banks, bailed out from bankruptcy with the taxes of the 99 percent.


The US public has begun to question why their government should spend their dollars in foreign adventurism while millions of them go hungry and homeless and cannot afford good education. In many polls a substantial majority of Americans, for perhaps the first time in their history, voted against military intervention in Syria. They are war-weary, and call upon their government to focus on domestic problems rather than on dictating to other people how to run their governments.


Obama, who many suspect is at heart a peacenik, having opposed the Iraq war, must have sensed this change in mood of the American people. He took them to the brink of another war, and when they expressed horror, pulled them back. The hope is that Obama is now intent on devoting his term to tackling domestic issues, including a government shutdown due to its soaring debt, rather than embarking on new adventurism. This could be a turning point in American “exceptionalism.”


China, on the other hand, has folded its red banner of world revolution which it waved under Mao. Instead, it has unfurled the banner of business. Now the second biggest economy in the world, it heralds its “peaceful rise” and pledges not to be a “hegemon” or world leader. China does not care what kind of government it deals with, so long as it is able to make money, it is said.


As for the Philippines, we still adhere to the policy set by President Manuel Roxas when we attained our independence from the United States on July 4, 1946. Then, he declared: “As we pursue our career as a nation … our safest course, and I firmly believe it true for the rest of the world as well, is in the glistening wake of America whose sure advance with mighty prow breaks for smaller craft the waves of fear.”


Having, in an odd moment, turned out the American military and naval bases, we have now offered our entire archipelago, including our marine-rich coasts, as the American base in the Pacific. We are America’s “pivot” to Asia. That is our exceptionalism.


Manuel F. Almario (mfalmario@yahoo.com) is a veteran journalist and a spokesman of the Movement for Truth in History, Rizal’s Moth.

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