No matter how you look at it, the United States has entered an unprecedented era of its relatively brief history. Whether one approaches this reality from the perspective of sociology, political science, or psychology, the conclusion is the same: We in the United States are in a deep trouble of a kind we’ve never experienced before, and few of us are equipped to deal with the implications and repercussions, mostly because we are in denial about how bad things have gotten. Since the U.S. has been a world super power for nearly 70 years, the crisis here impacts people throughout the world. Given the founding documents, sentiments, and spirit that informed the events of 1776, the United States was never really set up to be an imperial power. But since the end of World War II, it has been precisely that, particularly after its entry into the disastrous Viet Nam engagement. That was the beginning of the end for the United States as a moral actor on the world stage. So, perhaps pulling back from the global stage—which Donald Trump clearly wants to do–is necessary now, but for reasons that are not at all in line with Trump’s views.
Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan raises a number of important and interrelated questions, and compels Americans to come to terms with its military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere over the last half century. For many of us on the left, U.S. military intervention anywhere has been a very bad idea with horrific consequences since Korea and Viet Nam until now. But at the same time, the alternatives in places like Syria look even more grim: Russian hegemony won’t be fun for anyone. It’s possible that many who now hate the United States will miss it when it’s gone.
It’s very easy to be cynical and sarcastic about conceptions of “American exceptionalism,” but there are indeed some exceptional elements about this experiment called the United States that we should reevaluate. The country was not founded as a nationalist or religious power. Although many of the country’s founding fathers in the late 18th century were indeed slave holders, and none of them would have accepted the idea of women voting, their commitment to Enlightenment values of human dignity and their rejection of aristocracy and the divine right of kings were noble and commendable in the context of those times.
After the end of World War I, many throughout the Middle East looked to the United States as a beacon of justice, freedom, and hope when President Woodrow Wilson announced his “14 points.” Living and working in Palestine and Lebanon throughout the 1990s, I met and interviewed many people, then in their 60s and 70s, who still held a special regard for the United States, and continued to hope it could make a difference for the Palestinians wounded by the injustices of 1948. Indeed, many people I spoke to in Palestine in 1992 had memorized the U.S. Declaration of Independence and held it in high regard. I found their hopes naïve– even desperate–at the time.
Living in Lebanon immediately after the end of the war was a crash course in corruption and despair. The war lords who destroyed the country reaped the benefits of the post-war era, and even in the university context, we saw the effects: university administrators who were more committed to their own confessional or political communities than to the interests of their students or the future of Lebanon. I was asked to change a failing grade of a student from a Lebanese Forces family to a passing grade. I refused.
When I got my Lebanese citizenship in 1994 and told my students I was proud to be a new Lebanese citizen, they laughed and said “It’s just a passport citizenship, Miss; it doesn’t mean anything.” I felt angry and told them they had to lose that attitude if they wanted to see the country recover from the long years of war. Their response was “hadha libnaan; shu bidna na3mal?!” They had already given up on the country as a collective project. I wryly suggested they change the flag to a dying cedar tree if that was their view. One student said “Lebanon is a country where everything is permitted, but nothing is possible,” which saddened me greatly. I realized then that I really was an American: someone who felt it was not only necessary, but more so possible and necessary, to “roll up one’s sleeves” and try to improve things for the greater good. Injustice should not stand. For me, that is what it means to be an American. I’m well aware that this is now a rare viewpoint.
Now, as an American living in Trump’s United States, I can really empathize with the cynicism of my Lebanese students 25 years ago. Growing up in a family of leftists who fought for civil rights, opposed the Viet Nam war, and campaigned for Sen. George McGovern in the 1973 presidential elections, I’ve never been a hyper-patriotic American. I’d never agree with anyone who said of America, “Love it or leave it!” Nationalism, which one scholar described as “the unrelenting effort to put a monocultural face on a profoundly multi-cultural reality” has never appealed to me. Seeing Trump stir up nationalist and nativist sentiments here in the United States has scared and saddened me. It can only lead to hate and violence. But I also teach a course on Human Rights that begins with the Enlightenment and ends with the latest news reports. Enlightenment values and beliefs have taken a thorough beating, and in some ways, that’s only normal and understandable. The founders of the United States were flawed humans. They owned slaves. They did not see women as fully human. But they did believe that humans had inherent dignity and should not be oppressed, used, murdered, or humiliated.
In the opposition and resistance to Trump and all his toxic influence on the United States, we see some glimmers of that same spirit. It’s entirely possible that Trump could encourage Americans to rediscover and renew the founding documents of this young country. It’s not that they’re outdated and useless; rather they haven’t yet realized their full and true potential. The passions and visions that inspired the American experiment in 1776 have been tarnished and misused by the likes of Richard Nixon, Wall Street, the military industrial complex, and now, Donald Trump. Let’s not “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Let’s acknowledge that the same sentiments, visions, and desires mobilized tens of thousands of Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, Bahrainis, and Yemenis to take to the streets in the name of human dignity in 2011. This is where hope lies, not in the schemes of Vladimir Putin or the criminality of Donald Trump.