On Being an Indispensable Nation

It was May 23, 2012, and President Obama was giving a graduation speech at the Air Force Academy when he told the assembled cadets that they should "never bet against the United States of America... [because] the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs." On that basis, he suggested, the 21st century, like the 20th, would be an American one. Then, on October 23, 2012, in the final presidential debate with Mitt Romney, he reiterated the point, saying: "America remains the one indispensable nation, and the world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office."

That phrase, "the indispensable nation," is of relatively recent coinage, but it is now seemingly an indispensable word for any American politician and so it's not surprising that the president continues to cling tightly to it. On May 28, 2014, for instance, giving another commencement speech, this time at West Point, he once again went for that indispensable rhetorical jugular. "And when a typhoon hits the Philippines," he assured the cadets, "or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come." (Of course, to this day those schoolgirls remain kidnapped and there are still masked men in buildings in Eastern Ukraine, but those are small points indeed.)

On August 26, Obama returned to the theme, speaking to the national convention of the American Legion. "No nation," he told the assembled veterans ringingly, "does more to help people in the far corners of the Earth escape poverty and hunger and disease, and realize their dignity. Even countries that criticize us, when the chips are down and they need help, they know who to call -- they call us. That's what American leadership looks like. That's why the United States is and will remain the one indispensable nation in the world."

You get idea. We are... go ahead, chant it: indispensable! And this is: our century... if you don't mind my completing the phrase... to screw up totally. As it happens, that word "indispensable" is often used without any indication of what exactly our indispensability consists of. Evidence from the last 13 years, however, suggests that we have been exceptionally, indispensably, undeniably, inscrutably important when it comes to destabilizing significant chunks of the planet and encouraging the growth of jihadist organizations. Now, in the post-9/11 exceptionalist sweepstakes, President Obama and his crew (with the Republican wolves of war baying at his heels) have evidently decided to outdo themselves by launching yet another war, even lamer than the previous ones, based on an expanding bombing campaign that's going nowhere. In "What Could Possibly Go Wrong?," State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren offers a sweeping worst-case vision of American indispensability in the Middle East. And as an account of disasters to come -- I don't hesitate to say it! -- it is both exceptional and indispensable reading as the latest iteration of the American Century goes down in flames.