Gaza: Ode to the Lost American Conscience

by James A. Russell

Watching the US-backed Israeli bombardment of Gaza makes me ashamed to be an American. The sight of US-made bombs bursting in the air, in hospitals, in homes, and over beaches is a far cry from the sense of American exceptionalism engendered by Francis Scott Key’s observations of the British shelling of Baltimore during the war of 1812.

That sense of American exceptionalism, which has been an important part of our national psyche, has also wended its way through the nation’s foreign policy and the intellectual traditions that have supported it.

As noted by historian Walter McDougall in his eloquent and timeless essay, “Back to Bedrock: The Eight Traditions of American Statecraft” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 1997), Americans always wanted to believe that their country’s foreign policy traditions, which ineluctably flowed from the principles of our founding fathers, stood for some higher moral purpose. This in turn meant we could pursue our ideals at home and abroad with a clear conscience and the ability to tell right from wrong.

To be sure, intellectual traditions drawing upon historic ideals and moral purpose have always cloaked the cold-hearted, realist foreign policies designed to enhance America’s influence and power around the world. But it is also true that these ideals and realist policies went hand in hand — despite the obvious inconsistencies.

For example, the West’s Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union undeniably drew upon that sense of American exceptionalism; we characterized the global struggle as one that pitted freedom against oppression. We were always on the right side of this fight, as countries around the world consciously and obviously sought to free themselves from the yoke of communist oppression in pursuit of democracy and pluralist governance.

That sense of exceptionalism and moral purpose also provided the intellectual bedrock for the domestic political consensus that characterized politics in the post-World War II era. Republican and Democratic administrations for the most part pursued sensible, centrist policies at home and abroad.

After the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, however, the US stumbled into the post-Cold War era, which, after a short hiatus, became replaced by the war on terror in which anti-modern Islamic terrorists replaced the Soviet boogeyman. Upon transitioning into the era of terror and foreign wars, that domestic consensus slowly but surely unraveled as the Republican party withdrew from the centrist coalition that had governed the US in the post-World War II world and denounced any attempts at sensible compromise.

Perhaps the most grievous casualty of the war on terror has been the US’ sense of exceptionalism and higher moral purpose. Instead, we are left with the cold, hard facts of today’s America: assassinating people via robots without due process, hauling suspects off to foreign jails to be tortured, enabling and supporting reprehensible regimes so long as they swear fealty to the terror war, and a government at home that routinely pries into its citizens’ private communications (not to mention those of our allies), all justified as necessary evils for safety and security.

Now our tax dollars are funding the bombing of Gaza while our elected representatives from both sides of the aisle scarcely raise an eyebrow. Ironically, the American political and monetary blank check granted to Israel has only hastened its descent into pariah state status and international isolation — the very opposite objective that the Israelis and we claim to be pursuing.

Of course, the American reaction to the events of Gaza and the latest era of American foreign policy says more about us and our lost sense of purpose than it does about Israel’s bad behavior. This loss has enveloped the republic and its domestic politics as the Republican Party has lurched off the ideological map into its exclusionary room full of mirrors.

We can no longer agree on such rudimentary steps as fixing the country’s deteriorating road system. Instead our government responds mainly to the needs of those corporations and individuals with enticing check books while the rest of us are left with crumbling roads.

The muted reaction to Gaza by our government and our elected representatives is partly a response to the money wielded by donor groups controlled by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has become the National Rifle Association of American foreign policy.

All this reveals a country that has lost the sense of conscience and purpose that were once the bedrocks of the world’s greatest democracy. Unless we find a way to recover our intellectual center of gravity, we will continue to watch US-made bombs burst over Gaza and elsewhere with a shoulder shrug and an Alfred E. Neumann “what me worry” attitude as our great republic crumbles around us.

Photo: IDF artillery forces fire into the Gaza Strip on July 16.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Thank you Mr James Russell for an exceptionally well worded article. Unfortunately today’s America is being run with the cowboy mentality of the old west and is fully dominated by Zionist interests.

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