American Exceptionalism and Our Newest War

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Once upon a time, when I was a child growing up in 1950s America, I truly believed in American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is a virtuous country and unique among nations because of our revolutionary history, experimental democracy, and personal liberty. For many, American Exceptionalism implies superiority to other nations and therefore a special role to play in world history through interventions in other countries. America is then seen as “the indispensable nation” on the world stage. Neoconservatives like Dick Cheney believe that the United States has the right to promote our national interest even when that requires military force and even when we are breaking international laws.

The United States emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation on earth because of our abundant natural resources, strong economy, and military superiority. With that power came “an outsized confidence in the efficacy of American power as an instrument to reshape the global order” according to political scientist Andrew Bacevich.

Since World War II, although we have had no declared wars, we have frequently conducted military and other interventions all over the world, some of which were against international law and/or our own Constitution or other laws. These have included major wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as U.S.-backed coups of democratically elected governments ranging from Iran in 1953 to Chile in 1973 to, arguably, Ukraine this year. The United States has gotten away with illegal actions in other countries because of our economic and military might, and because, as a member of the Security Council, we have been able to block any sanctions from the United Nations.

Virtually all of our meddling has resulted in “blowback”, or unintended consequences. John Mearsheimer points out that because we have the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean “moats” to protect us, as well as nuclear weapons, “turning the world into one big battlefield” has not resulted in significant strategic costs for us “precisely because the United States is such an extraordinarily secure country. It can pursue foolish policies and still remain the most powerful state on the planet….. The pursuit of global domination, however, has other costs that are far more daunting. The economic costs are huge—especially the wars—and there are significant human costs as well. After all, thousands of Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many more have suffered egregious injuries that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Probably the most serious cost of Washington’s interventionist policies is the growth of a national-security state that threatens to undermine the liberal-democratic values that lie at the heart of the American political system.”

Since 1980, the United States has invaded, occupied, and/or bombed fourteen countries in the Islamic world. Barack Obama has cited security and/or moral imperatives for bombing seven largely-Muslim countries (Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan,Yemen, Somalia, and now Syria). The results so far have been thousands of civilian casualties, the global expansion of terrorism, and increased terrorist organization recruitment.

President Obama said as recently as August that there was no military solution to the Syrian crisis and that we could not trust “moderate” opposition to the Assad regime, yet by September his strategy for dealing with ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, depended on both. Obama’s stated aim for the first bombings against ISIS was to save the Yazidis, the minority religious sect that had been trapped on a mountaintop by ISIS, but this was window-dressing. This was not ISIS’ first foray into genocide. It was, however, the first time ISIS was threatening the oil-rich Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The real reason for the bombing campaign was to save the Kurdish forces defending Erbil, where there is an estimated trillion dollar international oil industry presence. As usual, our Middle East meddling is far more concerned with oil than with people. The “collateral damage” to civilian populations of our bombing is likely to result in many casualties. Already there are reports of dozens of civilian deaths from our military campaign, and this is after only a few weeks of bombings that are planned to go on for years.

Some people here support the bombing for genuinely humanitarian reasons. They point out that ISIS is carrying out genocide, rape, torture, slavery, and other cruel and evil acts. But these concerns are not really those of the Administration. ISIS was doing the same things for months before Obama decided to intervene, when the Kurds in Erbil were on the verge of collapse. As George Monbiot has put it, “Whenever our armed forces have bombed or invaded Muslim nations, they have made life worse for those who live there. The regions in which our governments have intervened most are those which suffer most from terrorism and war.” The overall results of this new military campaign are likely to have similarly negative consequences for the people of Iraq and Syria.

Now that the Free Syrian Army is on the run and the Republicans will soon take control of the Senate, there will be more pressure on the president to escalate the war to include American “boots on the ground”, which will further exacerbate the harm we are causing. Obama has already ordered 1500 more troops into the war zone. So far, the United States strategy is failing badly.

U.S. Air strikes on Kobani (Guardian)

U.S. Air strikes on Kobani (Guardian)

Phyllis Bennis notes that our military strikes “are making real solutions impossible.” She claims that “weakening ISIS requires eroding the support it relies on from tribal leaders, military figures, and ordinary Iraqi Sunnis.” Joshua Landis also thinks our current war will fail,and suggests an alternative. Bennis’s and Landis’s proposals for nonmilitary political solutions would take a long time to effect change, but Obama’s strategy will take “years.” Why go on with our current destructive strategy, which is likely to bring even more misery to the people we are supposedly trying to save from ISIS?

Do two severed American heads justify the carnage we are visiting on Iraq and Syria? After the intense media coverage of the beheadings, the late September polls showed that 73% of previously “war-weary” Americans approved of bombing ISIS, even though only 51% thought it might actually work.

​What are the moral implications of a people that approves of bombing other countries even though they are not confident that it will help? Like “the white man’s burden,” belief in American Exceptionalism seems to carry with it willful blindness to the harm we cause to anyone but ourselves. “The dead” from our misadventures means American deaths. Our mainstream media often don’t even report on those nameless hundreds of thousands who are killed, maimed, displaced, or disease-ridden because of U.S. foreign policy decisions. Members of wedding parties and children are just “collateral damage”, while our government assures us that all males over 13 who are killed are “enemy combatants”. The only thing that counts is how many targeted enemies we’ve taken out.

And this is all to no avail–in fact, it is counterproductive, since every military strike results in escalating recruitment for our enemies, ISIS is continuing to grab more territory despite our bombing campaign, and our military actions will further destabilize the entire region. Peter Van Buren puts it succinctly: “Washington’s post-9/11 fantasy has always been that military power—whether at the level of full-scale invasions or ‘surgical’ drone strikes—can change the geopolitical landscape in predictable ways. In fact, the only certainty is more death. Everything else, as the last 13 years have made clear, is up for grabs, and in ways Washington is guaranteed not to expect.”

I remember feeling quite moved during President Obama’s eulogy for the innocent children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School—until I remembered mid-speech that he had ordered drone strikes that killed scores more innocent children in other countries than those gunned down here, in our exceptional America.

Susan Shoemaker lived in central Illinois for most of her life before moving elsewhere to work as a college professor. When she retired she came home to Champaign-Urbana.

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