The recently published fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual contains no diagnosis for Narcissistic Polity Disorder—the book’s scope being confined to the personality disorder of a similar name—but should the editors ever wish to expand into political science, they will find an excellent case study in the interview Senator John McCain gave on CBS’ Face the Nation last Sunday. It turns out the Egyptian coup, which gave all signs of being a conflict among Egyptians about Egypt, was in fact about—well, us.
“It’s a strong indicator,” McCain said, “of the lack of American leadership and influence since we urged the military not to do that,” McCain explained. The attentive reader will recognize “failure of American leadership” as an emission from the F6 button of McCain’s keyboard, which he hits anytime an adverse event occurs anywhere in the world. But it turns out Egypt is not the only country into whose water the Senator gazes and sees America’s reflection. He continued:
[T]he place is descending into chaos but so is the entire Middle East because of the total vacuum and lack of American leadership whether it be the massacres in Syria—Lebanon is—is beset by sectarian violence, Jordan is about to collapse under the weight of refugees, Iraq is unraveling, Afghanistan, we’re having grave problems organizing a follow on force in Afghanistan. America has not led and America is not leading and when America doesn’t lead bad things happen and other people do lead and Egypt is just one segment of a failure of American leadership over the last five years and we need to start being leaders rather than—than—than bystanders.
Sectarian violence in the Middle East, an ancient and evidently incurable phenomenon, an American failure? That’s one powerful reflection staring back from the water. It is also a powerful fantasy, with roots in the same place—and the metaphor is separated from reality by only the narrowest of margins—as narcissistic personality disorder, one of whose hallmarks is the proclivity to interpret foreign events in terms of oneself. Any event, anywhere, anytime becomes a test of American leadership: He who does what America wished he had not done had no autonomous motives; he meant to stick a thumb in the American eye.
Thus McCain’s understanding of leadership and its breathtaking condescension—in, ironically, the name of the neoconservative project of spreading freedom. Note that within that model—someone is going to lead and it is therefore best for it to be a, make that the, righteous nation—little room is left for the very thing McCain claims he wants to promote: nations actually making choices about their own futures from within. In the present case, Egyptians are fighting about Egypt; the real issue, according to McCain, must be what the United States had to say, or failed to say, about it. The generals could not possibly have been motivated by (a) different aspirations for Egypt, (b) venality, (c) power or (d) some combination of the above: We must understand their motives for the coup in terms of whether they complied with our request that they “not do that.”
To be sure, north of $1.5 billion in foreign aid ought to buy some influence with Egypt’s governors, although primarily what it buys is assurance of Egyptian compliance with the country’s peace with Israel—which the generals may be likelier to keep than the Muslim Brotherhood. If what it was supposed to buy was democracy as an American gift to the Egyptian people, we ought not to be surprised if Egyptians turn around and resent the arrogance of our beneficence—and hold us accountable for its failures too.
McCain’s interpretation of the turmoil in the Middle East—note, incidentally, the utter lack of self-awareness as to Iraq’s descent into chaos—is powerful evidence of the extent to which American exceptionalism, poorly understood, can slouch into narcissism. So widespread is the phenomenon that all politicians, even those accused of harboring heretical thoughts about exceptionalism, must make obeisance to it. (President Obama: “[T]here is no substitute for American leadership.”)
It did not start this way. John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill (link no longer available)” address was not a boast. It was a warning. The fact that Heaven had special plans for America meant not that America had special privileges but rather that Americans, should they fail, faced special punishments:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
That was 1630; this is 2013. No one seriously believes the United States can retreat from the world. Superpower status brings obligations of leadership. But leadership can be exercised with arrogance or humility and in a spirit of adventure or restraint. Conservatism used to prize the latter qualities. They would also be effective therapy for the ailment disordering the nation’s thinking about its responsibilities—and capacities—overseas.