Failure is hard for a country to swallow -- especially so for the United States. For two reasons. One, Americans feel that our nation was born in a state of original virtue which, as Destiny's child, always would be crowned with success. Two, the US has experienced tangible failure only rarely in its triumphant sweep across the continent and then in its rise to world supremacy. The last best hope of mankind's motif pretty much sums up the collective self-esteem. Militarily, the worst was the tie in Korea and the abandonment of Vietnam. Even the ugly blemish of slavery and racism did not impair the pervasive sense of exceptionalism and superiority. And it, too, was addressed with exceptional effort -- however belatedly.
The deeply-etched image in our collective mind and heart is that America is a winner. A winner due to two factors: the talents and acumen of its inventive people; and the just rewards for its moral fiber. They are interlaced. We accomplish what nobody else can because we are both better at doing things and better people. We expect to be appreciated for both by the rest of the world. Failure, in this mindset, is inconceivable. To acknowledge failure is to accept a notion that undercuts the very essence of who we are. Moreover, given the powerful binding force that is the American civil religion, acceptance of national failure injures individual self esteem as well as national pride. That psychology raises the stakes on never failing.
As a consequence, our national existence becomes something of a high-wire act. No venture seems too daunting; we are daring by nature and identity. (Who else -- past or present -- would impetuously take on the harebrained scheme of taking over and transmuting Mesopotamia?) The compulsion to prove our uniqueness, to confirm our prowess, has produced some great accomplishments. More and more, it is jeopardizing our well-being in ways so manifest as to threaten our national self-identity and to challenge our powers of sublimation. Only prudence can curb what have become our self destructive impulses. Prudence, though, has never been a prized American trait. We even permit ourselves the luxury of being participant observers in the inane celebrity game we call presidential elections as if there were some invisible safety net to protect us from falling into the abyss of a fatally degraded public life.
Given the dire implications of failure, there is profound need to deny it. Hence, the mealy-mouthed commentaries on the Iraq recessional. None of the multiple objectives for embarking on the venture are close to being met. Each of the underlying premises has proven wrong. Deceit has marked the project from Day One. Strategically, we have turned a counterforce to Iran in the Gulf into its ally. We have motivated could-be terrorists by the gross. Our credibility across the region has plummeted. In effectively destroying a country for no good reason, we have placed a lasting taint on any form of intervention. Our gross human rights abuses over there have shredded our moral standing; the stealth war on civil liberties over here compromises what is best in us. Mr. Obama says: leave it to the historians to come up with a balance sheet. For a great nation to succeed. It must know why it acts, register the results and draw the lessons without anticipating the sum of academic tomes to be written "going forward."
So will America learn the lessons of our folly? Certainly not fully. For that requires the kind of dispassionate self examination of which we are incapable for the reasons noted above. Even at the instrumental level, it would be rash indeed to presume that our readiness to take on another illogical enterprise fueled by self-righteousness has been permanently muted. After Korea, the American foreign policy establishment was as one in declaring never again a ground war on the mainland of Asia. A decade later we flung ourselves gung-ho into the morass of Vietnam. From that tragedy, emerged not just a war averse public but also formal military doctrines (e.g. the Powell Doctrine) that set stringent conditions for the deployment of our troops on battlefields. The inoculation held for a awhile. Then came 9/11 and all caution was cast to the winds in the rush to slay dragons -- real or imagined -- and to reach the security nirvana of a zero threat world. One of the flag bearers was Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Tomorrow? The 'verdict' of history won't provide a clear answer since such verdicts will come too late; anyway, we'll all be too busy text-messaging to read them. Moreover, we are not a people who live by the guidelines of history. An intrinsically virtuous, exceptional America that is the agent of Destiny exists outside history. It exists in our psyches whose own dynamics will determine what we think and what we do.
Americans' enthusiasm for thrusting one finger heavenward while shouting "U.S.A! U.S.A!" seems to have lost some of its edge in the era of financial mayhem, a looming China, and the sting of serial misadventures in the Greater Middle East. Yet, you will see little sign of that among the high priests of our national faith who run the mainstream media or the herd of predatory aspirants fighting to be considered among the papabili.