America’s most fervid cheerleaders sometimes make the most devastating criticisms of the U.S. Although usually inadvertently.
For instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently took to twitter to declare that "The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a normal state." He listed several of Tehran’s illicit activities, including "Normal states do not attack embassies and military installations in peacetime."
True. But by that standard America is anything but ordinary. After all, the US bombs numerous countries, launches drones at multiple targets in other states, routinely invades and occupies other lands, issues threats of war almost daily, stations troops around the world and threatens states with sanctions if they request Washington to remove those forces, backs allied nations that actively oppress their peoples and slaughter neighboring populations, and sanctions scores of nations and thousands of people and organizations that resist Washington’s dictates. Being an ally is no defense: US policymakers are determined to crush any government which does not submit to American direction with alacrity.
It is hard for the "America is perfect" crowd to admit that the US in fact is the most militaristic and aggressive nation on the planet. No "normal" there! American exceptionalism means something very different to Americans who enjoy wandering the globe glorying in their nation’s brutal power and dubious influence and foreigners who suffer every day as a result of Washington’s exceptional demands and pressures.
Washington Examiner writer Tom Rogan comes at the issue from a different direction. He points to the confusing North Korean encounter with a South Korean maritime official offshore near the two nations’ maritime boundary which resulted in the man’s death. He argued that "the incident served as a reminder that Pyongyang is incapable of being trusted with nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles."
Actually, an unclear, confusing border incident resulting an unfortunate death may be about the most common occurrence involving governments worldwide. Consider how many attempted migrants die along America’s southern boundary. Look at the chaotic scenes and frequent deaths in the Mediterranean among Africans seeking refuge in Europe. Watch Greece force wannabe migrants back into Turkey. Compared to these, the tragic incident off the Korean peninsula’s east coast looks minor. It isn’t even clear that the leadership in Pyongyang – evil, to be sure, but not necessarily culpable of everything evil – is to blame, other than issuing extreme orders in an attempt to isolate the country from the COVID-19 pandemic.
From this incident Rogan imaginatively suggests the potential for nuclear war, a bizarre, even paranoid fantasy. Actually, a real threat of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula was posed by President Donald Trump, who in fall 2017 was threatening "fire and fury," and his cheerleaders, such as the nutty Sen. Lindsey Graham, who cheerfully concluded that such a conflict wouldn’t be a big deal since it would be "over there" rather than "over here." In terms of avoiding a nuclear holocaust, Kim Jong-un, who has a lot to lose from nukes flying back and forth across the Pacific, appeared to be more responsible than Trump and Graham, who seemed to assume that a fevered belief in US beneficence, crude assertion of American superiority, and magical incantation or two would protect Americans from harm.
It is worth considering Washington’s perennial aggressive behavior since the end of the Cold War and ask if the US, as presently led within, is entitled to lead without. The unfortunate conclusion of such a review suggests that America, run by politicians raised on a toxic concoction of hubris and sanctimony and exhibiting an equally dangerous mix of ignorance and impatience, is not fit to lead the world.
Consider the US record since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact left a dominant America without evident geopolitical constraint. Invading Panama to install a more pliant leader. Intervening in Somalia to sort out rule by warlords. Threatening Haiti with invasion to reinstall an ousted demagogue as president. Lying to Soviet and Russian officials about expanding NATO up to Russia’s new borders.
Offering diplomatic support and military aid and even lending the US military to Croatian, Bosnian, and Kosovar nationalists and warlords to fight Serbian nationalists and warlords. Lawlessly dismembering Russia’s friend Serbia. Spending two decades fomenting and waging war in the Middle East and Central Asia. Supporting an ally’s barbaric invasion of Yemen. Imposing sanctions on and threatening sanctions against numerous nations, including nominal allies. Fomenting hot wars against Iran and North Korea. Pushing a new Cold War against China.
The consequences of these policies have been extraordinary – and not in a good way. Thousands of dead Americans. Tens of thousands of wounded Americans, many grievously. Hundreds of thousands of dead foreign civilians. Millions of people forced from their homes, many fleeing to foreign nations later overrun by similar violence. Trillions of dollars squandered. Several shattered foreign lands: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Expanded influence for Iran. Multiple tyrannies strengthened, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates.
Given that record, why would anyone imagine that America, as presently governed, is fit to possess a globe-spanning military and use it while "leading" the world?
Of course, the US government remains better than those currently running China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria. We are lucky that none of them possess America’s military wherewithal and soft power.
Nevertheless, Washington’s foreign policy reputation is awful because its behavior and the consequences thereof have been awful. Treating America as without sin, painting US officials as Vestal Virgins, and excusing even the worst barbarities – consider manifold U.S.-supported atrocities in Yemen – recklessly squanders this nation’s evident strengths and virtues.
"American exceptionalism" has become the preferred excuse for implementing the worst sort of militaristic and imperialistic policies. Democrats no less than Republicans think nothing of causing murder and mayhem around the globe in the name of some ill-defined "vital national interest."
The chief victims of this approach are foreign peoples wantonly killed and displaced, their nations wrecked and futures squandered. However, Americans lose too. Some costs – human, financial, reputational – are obvious. Others run much deeper. Like sacrificing America’s soul as a democratic republic. Washington now is an imperial city, which increasingly treats Americans like it treats foreigners, as dependents and supplicants rather than free men and women.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.