Here’s my twenty-first-century rule of thumb about this country: if you have to say it over and over, it probably ain’t so. Which is why I’d think twice every time we’re told how “exceptional” or “indispensable” the United States is. For someone like me who can still remember a moment when Americans assumed that was so, but no sitting president, presidential candidate, or politician felt you had to say the obvious, such lines reverberate with defensiveness. They seem to incorporate other voices you can almost hear whispering that we’re ever less exceptional, more dispensable, no longer (to quote the greatest of them all by his own estimate) “the greatest.” In this vein, consider a commonplace line running around Washington (as it has for years): the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Uh, folks, if that’s so, then why the hell can’t it win a damn thing 14-plus years later?
If you don’t mind a little what-if history lesson, it’s just possible that events might have turned out differently and, instead of repeating that “finest fighting force” stuff endlessly, our leaders might actually believe it. After all, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it took the Bush administration only a month to let the CIA, special forces advisers, and the U.S. Air Force loose against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s supporters in Afghanistan. The results were crushing. The first moments of what that administration would grandiloquently (and ominously) bill as a “global war on terror” were, destructively speaking, glorious.