Is Obama a Turkey or an Eagle?

The Turkey and the EagleIn 1784 Benjamin Franklin played the tongue-in-cheek naturalist and castigated the decision by the Congress of the Confederation to adopt the bald eagle as the symbol of the United States. The bald eagle, Franklin wrote, lives by “Sharping & Robbing,” watching a “diligent” hawk fishing, and then stealing its hard-earned booty. Rejecting this lazy thief, Franklin preferred that the national honor be borne by the proud but prudent (“tho’ a little vain & silly”) wild turkey, an industrious and “respectable” berry and bug eater who, while not adventurous, “would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Franklin’s juxtaposition of these two birds showed his appreciation of the potential for a struggle over the foreign policy of his new country. Eagles had long been symbols of power for European royalty as they roamed first the continent and then the globe, “Sharping & Robbing.” Although he famously savored the literature and leisure of European culture during his tenure as ambassador to France, Franklin was an outspoken opponent of Europe’s domination of far-flung cultures through slavery and colonialism. The turkey, native only to the Americas, was untainted by symbolic association with European expansion, and indeed, with expansion of any kind. The wild turkey — unlike the flightless, heavy domestic turkey that was soon bred from it — can fly as fast as the wide-ranging bald eagle, but it spends its entire life within a few miles of its birth.

Would America be an eagle or a turkey in its relations with others? Would it Sharp and Rob, or would it mind its own Farm Yard? Would America be, as many of its founders advocated, a new kind of nation not just in its popular form of government and its religious tolerance, but also in having a foreign policy in which right made might and neighborly collaboration replaced the interference and intervention practiced by European monarchs? As one can tell by looking on the back of the dollar bill, Franklin lost the symbolic struggle over the eagle and the turkey. He also soon fell behind in the real struggle over foreign policy. The political and economic mainstream brushed aside calls for the acceptance of the rights of Native American nations and neighboring governments as unacceptable weakness. The belligerent expansion of the government’s zone of control continued under such imperious claims as god-given exceptionalism, racial superiority, the Monroe Doctrine, and Manifest Destiny.

Highly respected commentators made strong and coherent arguments for self-restraint in case after case,, including Franklin’s own denunciation of slavery, Chief Justice Marshall’s unenforceable rejection of Cherokee removal, and Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s oration against invading Mexico. None, however, seemed able to deflect the American flood that kept surging toward the western shining sea. Individual acts of local aggression by settlers escalated into land grabs by the states they formed and finally into federal military enforcement of large-scale rail, mining, and ranching claims that drove Indian nations onto reservations. At each step, convenient moral arguments were adopted to justify the taking of labor and land

Obama: Turkey or Eagle

Today, after more than 200 years of ebb and flow in U.S. military expansion overseas, the United States again must choose. Mainstream American political opinion, while at times rejecting particular portrayals of threat and particular proposals for weapons and alliances, has consistently accepted the underlying assumption that Washington has the right, and indeed the moral duty to its own and other countries’ citizens, to use its military and economic power to shape a “stable” international environment that is, conveniently, somehow always advantageous to both the United States and the citizens of the stabilized countries. This is the assumption that hearkens back to Franklin’s day and to the choice between the turkey and the eagle — in today’s terms between cooperation and domination — at the core of U.S. foreign policy.

President Barack Obama dramatically changed the rhetoric of American purpose in his first year in office and received the Nobel peace prize for doing so. He spoke of shared interests and mutual respect rather than a unilateral right to choose governments and impose solutions, and he put an end to Bush’s aggressive demand that governments stand “with us or against us” in a “global war on terror” that featured illegal renditions, secret prisons, and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Obama famously traveled to the Middle East to praise Islam as a progressive force in world history, and to the United Nations to outline his vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

However, Obama’s fundamental shift in rhetoric was not matched by a similar shift in practice. He increased the size of, and the budget for, military and covert forces, and maintained Bush’s arms aid and sales to dictators who provide basing and support for military and covert deployments. The two stops on his visit to the Middle East were Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where he trumpeted the cause of democratic reform without noting that the Mubarak regime and the House of Saud are authoritarian dinosaurs who treat dissent with jail and torture. He called for more cooperation in combating terrorism by Islamist militants without noting that al-Qaeda turned on the United States because of its military and covert support for the rule of those two dinosaurs.

Obama did quietly ease off on his campaign pledge to use military force to block Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. And in a related decision, which was so brilliantly complex that nobody could quite understand or criticize it, he reversed Bush’s plan to place anti-ballistic missiles in Poland. However, he followed through on his pledge to step up the war against the Taliban and tripled the level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 100,000 — although he bizarrely announced, before the troops could even arrive and test their effectiveness, that they would begin withdrawing within 18 months. This policy was typical of Obama’s approach to America’s global role: tone down the rhetoric and the excesses, and maintain the underlying alliances and military power.

Domestic Sources of Imperialism

How does the Eagle, signifying aggression and dominance and a neo-colonial approach to U.S. foreign policy, maintain its rule over the Turkey, signifying moderation and cooperation and an anti-imperialist approach? The answer is found in both procedure and politics, but at its heart, in American culture and self-perception.

Members of the U.S. House, by state laws, and the Senate, by a constitutional amendment in 1913, are chosen under a winner-takes-all rule. This reduces the representation in government of the anti-imperialist minority that would be present under a proportional election rule. In addition, the undemocratic nature of the Senate, in which all states have two seats regardless of population, disproportionately favors the small, white states that are more interventionist than the large, multi-ethnic ones. The half million people, almost all white, in Wyoming, have as much say as the 40 million people in California, a majority of whom are not white. On a per capita average, white Americans have 35 percent more power on the Senate floor than black Americans. The casual inclusion by the Founders of the two Senate votes for each state in the Electoral College, which is otherwise weighted by population, resulted in the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

In seeking their majorities under these rules, both in individual elections and in the House and Senate as a whole, the Democratic and Republican parties naturally gravitate toward independent voters who “swing” between the two. The parties’ foreign policies reflect the mood, rather than some articulated philosophy, at this center point of the electorate. The Eagles are ascendant and the Turkeys marginalized not simply because of procedural quirks that result in there being two parties at the center rather than more parties at the fringes of the political spectrum, but because American culture and self-perception have somehow made voters in the middle of the political spectrum comfortable with an aggressive, unilateral global role. The key to that comfort is a belief in American exceptionalism, promoted by a cultural pump that provides a steady stream of self-congratulation and validation in the media and at community events for its emotional foundations. These include:

  • a maudlin self-perception of unappreciated benevolence, resting on historical myths that paint American history as a series of just causes;
  • a belligerence in response to challenge and criticism that civil rights historian Taylor Branch calls deeply American – which is rooted in the white violence and white fears that sustained three centuries of slavery and segregation in the South, as well as in the violence of England’s rule over the Scottish and Irish lands that provided so much of its global strike force in the 19th century, and so much of the population of America’s Appalachian frontier; and
  • a state-oriented religiosity that places a veneer of sanctity, by its nature illogical and hence unassailable, on the symbols, forces, and foreign actions of the United States.

Exceptionalism sees the United States as a leader with special rights rather than a partner with equal rights. It holds that the United States, unlike other governments, acts out of benevolence and altruism, and so has the right, indeed the duty and historical calling, to impose order on the world — over others’ objections but for their benefit. Exceptionalism considers acts of self-benefit, such as forming a strategic alliance with a repressive regime, to be idealistic, because they will eventually result in American influence that will promote democracy and human rights. These beliefs resonate poorly in underdeveloped nations, who have a grim history of perpetrators justifying colonization and neo-colonialism as altruism. John Tirman, director of the Center for International Studies at MIT, argued at a 2008 House hearing that exceptionalism is rooted in an historical self-image:

The fundamental self-perception of our mission…one we have carried for centuries, is that of the frontier (in need of) “taming.”…This has led us into many actions – some dangerous and violent… Many people do not share these views, many of them from ancient civilizations with their own self-referential myths and narratives.

Public debate about America’s global role is usually calm and guided by the Eagles’ assumption of exceptionalism, but during extreme events like wars it can become heated and briefly involve the viewpoint of the Turkeys. Two of the best-known songs during the Vietnam War were Country Joe and the Fish’s 1965 samizdat “Feel-like-I’m Fixin’-to-die Rag,” a bitter critique of corporate militarism that invited parents to “be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box,” and Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s 1966 chart-topping “Ballad of the Green Berets,” a paean to a soldier who “dies for those oppressed.” However, media coverage and public debate during the war was not balanced between Country Joe and Sergeant Barry — Turkey or Eagle, anti-imperialist or neo-colonialist, advocates of cooperation or dominance — but between hard and soft Eagles.

The Debate Today

The same is true for the “global war on terror,” as the Bush administration formally named the struggle for control of the Islamic world between theocratic Muslims and the United States and its coterie of western-oriented strongmen. Debate concerns the practicality of tactics, not the morality of goals. The media argue about what to do with global armed forces, not about whether to have them. Congress argued about whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and over Iran’s capability to build them, not over whether it is America’s right to go to war to destroy them. The Democratic Party argues with the Republican Party over how to fight “the war on terror” but not over whether to respond to the violent opposition of Islamist groups to America’s forceful domination of the Middle East with more or less domination, and over whether the “surge” worked in Iraq but not over whether we had the right to determine Iraq’s future after an illegal invasion. The harder-power Republicans have an inherent advantage over the softer-power Democrats in these arguments. Once the need for domination is agreed to and the inevitable impasses are reached, the logic for escalation of force and collaboration with repressive regimes is powerful.

The Turkeys have always been few, fragmented, and prone to anti-capitalist and pacifist sentiments that make their reasonable prescriptions on social welfare and international justice hopelessly suspect to the permanently capitalist, non-pacifist majority of Americans, and so to the electoral hopes of the Democratic party. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sought in 2006 by the premier anti-war coalitions, United for Peace and Justice, and International ANSWER, was not the one proposed by hawkish Representative Jack Murtha (D-PA), eventually backed by liberal House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA), and then implemented by centrist President Obama. Turkeys wanted a withdrawal not just of combat troops but of military and financial support for the U.S.-emplaced Iraqi government. They wanted a withdrawal not only from Iraq, but from the Middle East, as part of a general rejection of the post-World War II foreign policy of maintaining large forces to threaten uncooperative regimes and sustain cooperative ones. In contrast, Murtha, Pelosi, and Obama, representing the overwhelming consensus in the Democratic Caucus, wanted to preserve U.S. military power, not reduce it. Their withdrawal of combat troops would be “over the horizon” elsewhere in the region, so that air power, special operations forces, and cash and weapons could be sent back to support the “Iraq-ization” of the war and the tens of thousands of U.S. “training” troops who would remain in Iraq.

Eagles Murtha and Pelosi opposed combat troops in Iraq in large part because the war had reduced other nations’ cooperation with counter-terror operations throughout the world; the Turkeys of the anti-war left regard the “war on terror” as just the latest in a long line of fraudulent excuses for alliances with despotic, yet compliant, regimes. This contradiction in the ultimate purposes of those who favored withdrawing from Iraq is reminiscent of similar contradictions during the Vietnam War. Senator Mark Hatfield, a leading “dove,” caustically dismissed the adventure in Vietnam as damaging to American interests, saying, “This was not the way to mount geopolitics.” The most potent anti-war groups, though, had no interest in mounting geopolitics. In fact, the most radical of those who opposed U.S. power as a force for neo-imperialism actually welcomed the damage the war did to U.S. alliances and joined in Che Guevara’s call for “two, three, many Vietnams.”

Domination and cooperation are mindsets that lead to contradictory foundations for policy-making. The logic of exceptionalism dovetails with the requirements of domination. Because the United States must always be prepared to achieve its goals on its own, it must maintain an overwhelming military force that need not be dependent on any allies for power projection and sustained operations. Because the United States has a special responsibility to protect the world, it must avoid any treaty or program that limits its freedom of action. Until Turkeys target not just the policies of domination, but the culture and the mainstream self-perception of exceptionalism, Soft Eagles will continue to mimic Hard Eagles as they seek their majority. A debate solely on tactics cedes the debate on goals and assumptions. As a presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln was asked why he supported barring slavery from new territories but did not back political rights for blacks in the free states. His response was that of a master politician, and concerned not his personal beliefs, but his ability to pursue them:

A universal feeling can not be safely disregarded…With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or announces decisions.

If Turkeys are to see a day when cooperation is the norm, they must “mould” public sentiment by targeting the “universal feeling” that exceptionalism and the domination it promotes are moral, successful, and inevitable.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Caleb Rossiter is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of The Turkey and the Eagle, from which this essay was adapted. His website, with his other articles, is: www.calebrossiter.com.