Amidst the handwringing of the media and liberals (but I repeat. . .) over the Senate Democrats’ attack on the CIA, a few observations.
• Why is that when a House committee, run by Republicans, issues a report criticizing government misdeeds or failures—such as IRS political harassment of Tea Party groups or the Benghazi fiasco—the media dismisses it as a mere “partisan” exercise, but when Senate Democrats issue a partisan report attacking the CIA, the media treats it as gospel? Never mind, the question answers itself. Meanwhile, I imagine that the partisan nature of the Democrats’ attack is not lost on the rank and file employees of the CIA.
• I wonder whether Democrats aren’t reviving their reputation for being wimps in national security? (What was your first clue?—John Kerry as secretary of state? Dick ‘Turban” Durbin comparing our troops to Nazis?) Jonathan Tobin has some useful thoughts on this and related questions over at Commentary. One may reasonably second-guess whether the CIA went too far, just as anyone who has studied group psychology ought to ask himself whether they’re sure they wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing if they’d been in the chain of response to 9/11. I’m guessing most Americans don’t have many qualms about treating terrorists roughly, but I have a suggestion: next time we bag some terrorists, I say let’s not put the onus on the CIA to get answers. Let’s hand them over to the Hells’ Angels instead.
• So let’s make sure I’m clear about this: liberals are aghast that America tortured captured terrorists, but are just fine with Obama targeting terrorists with drones, which not only deprives us of any chance of gathering direct intelligence, but has a high collateral body count of civilians? Why aren’t Dianne Feinstein and other liberals demanding an instant end to drone strikes? (The handful of left- and right-libertarians who have been saying this for years are the only ones with any consistency and moral authority on this issue. All the other liberals complaining this week are hypocritical posers.) Or perhaps we should just shrug and say that drone warfare fits our drone president.
• Perhaps the stupidest angle of the controversy are the voices saying some variation of “this proves that American exceptionalism is a lie!” My good-hearted liberal friend Joel Mathis is dancing a bit to this tune, and Peter Beinart, having recanted his view of ten years ago for liberals to have a more aggressive foreign policy, now says that tortures is who we are, or something. . . his Atlantic primal sigh is a little hard to make out. (My CRB review of Beinart’s book is here.)
The fact that the Left hates the very notion of American excepionalism—and seeks every excuse to attack it—can be passed over for the moment, and it is a large subject in any case. (I recommend Charles Murray’s short but elegant treatment, American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History. Sample passage below.*) But it does not and has never meant that the United States is above or immune to the basic rules of political life, especially the basic instinct to defend itself against enemies. The fact that we do so without apology (except from liberals) is a good part of what makes the U.S. exceptional today, and what most infuriates the Left, who, as Hillary has instructed us, think we lack the proper empathy for our enemies.
American exceptionalism does not imply American excellence or superiority. Americans tend to think that most of the traits of American exceptionalism are positive, but others, especially Europeans, have always disagreed. Even those of us who think they are positive must acknowledge aspects of American exceptionalism that are problematic.
American exceptionalism is not something that you can choose whether to “believe in,” any more than you can choose whether to “believe in” the battle of Gettysburg. American exceptionalism is a fact of America’s past. Understanding its meaning is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand what it has meant to be an American.