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God Bless America?
Last uploaded : Thursday 6th May 2004 at 21:45
Contributed by : Christopher Bostrom


An Awards for All project article:
A reflection on how three words are shaping the future of US foreign policy

Anyone who has been to the United States since September 11 is sure to have noticed a marked increase in the physical expression of American patriotism. Today, not only houses fly flags, but office complexes, automobiles, warehouses, storefronts, backpacks, bicycles, shopping malls and even domestic animals are all now adorned with the unmistakable ?stars n? stripes?. Indeed, it would seem the production of ?Americana? has almost become a significant new growth industry in an otherwise sluggish US economy.

However, this new outburst of patriotism has carried with it a slogan: God Bless America. Whatever its historical antecedents, ?God Bless America? has emerged as a by-word for the American sentiment and worldview in a post-September 11 geopolitical environment-a sort of celebration of, and tribute to, the many virtues of the world?s pre-eminent superpower. It is scarcely surprising that the almighty should be invoked in such matters. American public life is everywhere imbued with religious overtones. American children begin every school day by pledging allegiance to ?one nation, under God?.

Every piece of American currency carries imprinted upon it the motto ?In God We Trust?, though evidently Americans do not trust the almighty sufficiently to give Her control of setting monetary policy at the Federal Reserve-this is left to Alan Greenspan (who is almost a Deity anyway, so he sort of counts). And, in August 2003, a federal judge in Alabama installed a two-ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse lobby to remind defendants who will really judge them.

Yet, this new catchphrase has become so omni-present in American daily life that it transcends other instances of religiosity in public affairs. Americans don?t wear the pledge on a t-shirt; nor do they frequently turn their currency into a bumper sticker. And, despite the President?s frequent invocation of well-known biblical passages, it would be incorrect to suggest the overt use of religion as a justificatory mechanism in building consensus and defending US foreign policy today.

What I suggest is a rather more circumspect but, as such, deeply significant link between religion and politics being forged in America today. Rather than advancing any particular religious doctrine, ?God Bless America? suggests and reinforces a particular set of critical thought processes, effectively collapsing the intellectual space between faith and politics. In other words, ?God Bless America? suggests a certain way of thinking about foreign affairs.

This mode of thought carries powerful force because of its breadth, stealth, and self-replication. Because it does not promote any particular religious doctrine, it has been successful at mobilising diverse constituents within the US, without offending anyone (except perhaps the atheists).

But while avoiding religious controversy, it has simultaneously drawn on the diverse religious histories and experiences with which most individuals can readily identify. And by drawing on this ?overlapping consensus? of different faiths, it has developed a decentralised, self-replicating facility-people across the country have rallied behind this new blessing for the nation. Thus a widely shared, quietly held, self-replicating mechanism has emerged through which two central thought processes predominate: faith and moral absolutism.

The rise of faith in US foreign policy is borne out broadly, but the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction fiasco stands out. While Europeans (including Britons) questioned the evidence presented by the Bush team at every turn, Americans seemed willing, almost wanting, to believe at each point along the way. Even the American press, well known for its scepticism of the current administration, swallowed the Iraq line ?bait, hook and tackle?.

For Americans abroad, it was both infuriating and curious to watch this undaunted faith in the least credible leader in modern US history.

Notice: it is not being suggested that religion became a distinctive feature of the WMD drive to war, but faith-the structure of thought which underlies and sustains most world religions-which intervened*. Part of this is merely a heightened willingness on the part of most citizens (and journalists) to ?trust? public officials with access to classified information which they believe could save them from imminent death. But an unwavering level of trust in the face of a unified front of opposition from the rest of the world?s populations and media signals something beyond trust-it is faith. And faith is distinct from trust because it is a belief which need not be proven empirically to be believed nor, alternatively, is it necessarily undermined by evidence to the contrary. As such, no duration of weapons inspections, no amount of counter-analysis, no laundry list of geopolitical side-effects would ever necessarily hold sway. While trust can be eroded by such events, empirics hold no definitive authority over the dictates of faith.

Of course, events in Iraq have left some of the faithful confused and disillusioned, the reality seeming to fall far short of the promise. The absence of law and order, the marked lack of anything beginning to resemble a ?weapons programme?, and ever-rising Iraqi hostility toward the occupation have all given occasion for soul searching among the congregation. But, alas, like every successful clergy, the Bush team has equipped the Pontiff to address these concerns: law and order comes to those who are patient and steadfast, weapons will be uncovered in due course, and public hostility will subside when the liberated recognise and embrace their freedom.

In other words, political failure and social disintegration represent unhindered progress along the road to Iraqi salvation. This is a dangerous line of reasoning.

The other half of this dangerous mentality is its moral absolutism. A medical example illuminates this critical aspect of the ?transatlantic divide?. In treating cancer patients it is a well-established practice to determine whether treatment will actually succeed in improving the patient?s health or whether treatment will only do more harm, whereupon allowing the cancer to slowly spread is (unfortunately) the least-worst course of action.

Similarly, whether intervening to depose Saddam would be superior to his continued leadership in the presence of some other international response (either proactive or passive) would have seemed a natural question to ask. However, this was never an aspect of the mainstream American debate. Saddam?s brutal character and history of aggression were taken to necessitate his removal from power-end of discussion. By virtue of his clear contempt for the rule of law, allowing him to continue in power was simply deemed an unacceptable course of action, leaving discussants to focus solely on the optimal method of his removal. The argument that his removal, however beneficial independent of its consequences, could bring more harm than good in the current geopolitical environment simply lay outside the domain of consideration.

This mode of thinking, while foreign to most political inquiries, has firm religious roots. The Judeo-Christian tradition (amongst others) lends itself to such clear moral cleavages, where vice can be delineated from virtue, and where evil can be confronted without ambiguous moral compromises. Of course, in this world, all sides of a conflict have legitimate claims and sinister aims, alike.

Whatever Saddam?s (many) evils, the level of domestic political stability which he imposed is unlikely to be seen for years to come-despite the ?heroic? efforts of Gen. Jay ?Buck? Garner. This is not an apologia for the Bathe Party regime-far from it. But whether a politically volatile Iraq without Saddam, ruled by outlaws and fundamentalists instead of a ruthless dictator, is in everyone?s (or, indeed, anyone?s) short- or long-term interest was a question seldom posed in the US political debate.

And it is this new environment-where wars are fought on faith and underpinned by stark moral choices-which makes the future of American hegemony very threatening. It is a climate where speculation morphs into truth and where that truth, in turn, becomes an imperative for decisive action. Facts (or even baseless accusations) do not require competing interpretations; they contain within themselves a preordained truth which only the political pagan would deny. Counterargument is decried as heresy and immediately de-legitimised and deemed antithetic to a strong, unified American message.

When the unheard critics are vindicated, the believers are generally unprepared to respond with anything other than continued faith that present failure is part of some wider campaign of success.

The great danger in all this is that American citizens are poorly equipped to deal with the extreme outrage and hostility which continued failures on the ground engender amongst those who see no ?wider success? on the horizon. The debate available then and now provides no context within which to understand the kind of hatred which mismanaged intervention can create.

Whether America made itself more or less secure by ?liberating? Iraq is ultimately contingent upon whether the legitimacy of that intervention is accepted by the liberated, and the wider world. For while outrage at American arrogance in matters of regime change is no excuse for terrorism, try telling that to the parents and spouses of those men and women who might die in future terrorist attacks against the US or elsewhere, inspired by an unbounded anger at the imperviousness of US dominance and intervention on its own terms.

The American popular discourse on foreign affairs needs a radical transformation, and the removal of ?God Bless America? would be a good beginning. First and foremost, Americans need to commit themselves to informed inquiry, rather than espousing patriotic platitudes. In place of unflinching faith, the country must embrace a discussion which explores the full spectrum of interpretation-a discussion which is committed to critically attacking all arguments with equal spirit, so as to ensure conclusions reached reflect the best use of available information, rather than the narrow ideologies of Beltway pundits. Secondly, it is a discussion which must respect the ?law of unintended consequences?: that any action might lead to unintended (even if morally unjustified) reactions which must be accounted for. Thirdly, Americans must embrace the uncomfortable moral ambiguity which pervades geopolitics and abandon hallow principles which can only be upheld by denying the successes (or failures) of the tough moral compromises between the parties involved.

Finally-and I know this will be anathema to Republicans and other conservatives-the popular discourse must come to deeply and genuinely respect the people with which American foreign policy is interacting.

While it is common among European media outlets to discuss the casualty rates of allied troops, civilians, and even sometimes Iraqi troops (who were often compelled to serve by fear of execution or collective punishment), US politicians and media seldom give mention to anyone but the ?fallen American heroes? who gave their life in the defence of ?life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?. This is extremely perilous. America will never ?win the peace? if it does not overwhelmingly convince average citizens abroad that it actually cares what happens to them during these traumatic processes. Forced statements from government officials are not enough. Whatever its intentions, the US must demonstrate-through outcomes-that it is not out for itself first, letting the chips fall where they may for others.

Only by providing security-physical, economic, political, social-for others will America enjoy security for itself. Unfortunately, this view is not widely shared in the United States. Still, unless America turns its foreign policy around and reinvents its worldview, it had better hope that God has indeed blessed it, for few others will be so generous in giving their benedictions.


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