William H. McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL admiral and former head of US Special Operations Command who, under President Barack Obama, led the raid to assassinate Osama bin Laden, has unsurprisingly endorsed the initiative to impeach Donald Trump. He wants readers of his op-ed in The New York Times to believe that Trump is the first and only president to have betrayed the fundamental ideals of the United States of America.
In flowery prose, McRaven writes: “We are not the most powerful nation in the world because of our aircraft carriers, our economy, or our seat at the United Nations Security Council. We are the most powerful nation in the world because we try to be the good guys. We are the most powerful nation in the world because our ideals of universal freedom and equality have been backed up by our belief that we were champions of justice, the protectors of the less fortunate.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The most powerful competitors, who, by virtue of winning competitions, entertain the belief that they are powerful in ways that their performance fails to justify
Admiral McRaven attributes championship status to all Americans — except possibly Trump and Trump loyalists — by virtue of the ideals he claims they share. He wants the entire nation to understand that, despite Trump’s betrayal of those ideals, they are “the good guys.” His rhetoric in this short passage of a full-page op-ed merits some close reading.
McRaven’s denial or diminishing of the importance of “aircraft carriers, our economy, or our seat at the United Nations Security Council” cleverly reminds the readers that those are in effect the real basis of US power, the ones that effectively intimidate other peoples and nations, the ones everyone should pay attention to. In traditional rhetoric, this trope is called apophasis. It highlights what’s important by saying it isn’t important. It’s actually an excellent rhetorical trick, which McRaven carries off with some subtlety.
The next sentence is less subtle and far less persuasive, and even disingenuous, but there may still be a grain of honesty in it: “We are the most powerful nation in the world because we try to be the good guys.” The idea of trying may include a very real result of failing. Does McRaven believe that trying alone makes one powerful? This sets a very low bar, since he isn’t claiming that we have to be “the good guys” but only try to be. It also reads like an excuse for hypocrisy because it tends to dismiss any accountability in the eventuality that, having tried to be good guys, you end up acting like bad guys — which, in some ways, accurately describes the observable pattern of much of US foreign policy in recent decades.
Then we get a sentence which, if taken literally, highlights the meaninglessness of McRaven’s entire message: “We are the most powerful nation in the world because our ideals of universal freedom and equality have been backed up by our belief that we were champions of justice, the protectors of the less fortunate.”
The train of thought assumes a series of unfounded premises. The first is that Americans have, and share among themselves, the ideals he mentions. Some Americans clearly do not share those ideals, even while giving lip service to them. They are often people in a position of power. The US is an unequal society, with some of the structural equalities visibly increasing year after year. Wealth, for example, has now become a major political issue.
If by ideals McRaven means the pious wishes expressed in slogans like “the land of the free” or “with liberty and justice for all,” then yes, those ideals are shared, but only in the form of verbiage. The freedom of the poor — essentially to remain poor and beg for work — cannot compare with the freedom of wealthy, which includes, for example, the freedom to pay lobbyists to promote legislation favorable to their interests.
But the most astonishing example of utter illogic appears as the basic premise of the sentence, suggesting that US power is the result of ideals that are “backed up by … belief.” In normal reasoning, belief is justified by evidence. Concrete facts and verifiable reality back up abstract beliefs, rendering them credible. In this case McRaven cites an insubstantial “belief” (in the idea of being champions of justice) as the evidence to support equally insubstantial and totally abstract ideals. Talk about building castles in the air.
His final thought in this brief passage concerns protecting of “the less fortunate.” Not only is the US the one developed nation that does practically nothing for the less fortunate among its own people; with its emphasis on combatting “big government,” it strives always to do less. It is the one culture whose value system prominently insists that the less fortunate have only themselves to blame. They need to “try” harder. Whether it’s trying to be “the good guys” or just trying to survive, trying appears to be the answer to every problem.
McRaven’s op-ed doesn’t stop with his cheerleading for American exceptionalism. He has written it to promote a simple solution that will permit the restoration of the ideals Trump’s presidency has — for the first time in history — undermined: “And if this president doesn’t understand their importance, if this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office — Republican, Democrat or independent — the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.”
Perhaps McRaven needs to review his American history. Trump is clearly not the first president to betray the ideals he cites of “universal freedom and equality” or of playing the role of “protector of the less fortunate.” The first president to do so was … George Washington. Who could possibly claim that his ownership of slaves didn’t contradict the idea that he was a champion of “universal freedom and equality” and protector of the less fortunate? Another Virginian slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, American’s third president, notoriously (in terms of today’s values) sought out original ways of protecting his “less fortunate” female slaves.
Of course, values change over time. No one today would claim that Washington or Jefferson were saints, and most would excuse them for being men of their times, focused on other fundamental political issues, at which they proved singularly successful. They established the notion that a modern nation-state, conceived of as a republic representing the interests of the people, with carefully thought-out electoral procedures and a system of checks and balances to mitigate the inevitable attempts to abuse power, was not only viable but capable of achieving goals that traditional monarchies hadn’t even dreamed of.
The problem is that much of that was a dream, a dream that had the potential to become a nightmare if the ideals it was built on served only for the purpose of self-congratulation. As a believer in the myth of American exceptionalism, McRaven is no different from Trump. The rhetoric is the same, though with slightly different emphasis and style. But they both share — along with many other politicians — a commitment to employing bombastic rhetoric and self-applause to replace political substance.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.