America the Pariah
We proclaimed a dream of an America that would be a Shining City on a Hill.
—President Ronald Reagan, 1984
I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.
—President Barack Obama, 2014
It has become obligatory. To be taken seriously in American politics, one must kneel before the altar of “American exceptionalism”—the messianic notion that the United States is a constant source for good in the world with a unique mission to spread its particular values.
At times, this manifests itself in absurdist minutiae, such as then-presidential candidate Barack Obama sparking controversy when he was seen without the requisite American flag pin on the lapel of his suit jacket. Gasp. Lambasted in the press for this unpatriotic symbolic gaffe, Obama soon sported the compulsory pin. He sported it safely through the presidency.
Both major political parties have long since reached a consensus of sorts on extolling America’s messianic global mission. To even question the contours of that crusade—despite 17 years of failing military quagmires—is to commit political suicide and be relegated to the margins of public life.
For once, the mainstream politicians might be right. A rigorous look at the United States of 2018 (or 2002, or 1850, for that matter) indicates that America may well be exceptional—only not in the ways most of its citizens think. On many issues and several levels, America’s culture of militarism (both at home and abroad) stands out as the unique dark side of the exceptionalist project. We are, in fact, extraordinary among the family of nations. Unfortunately, that which makes us exceptional is the dogged militarism that consistently brands the U.S. as an international pariah.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when regular global polling indicates that a large percentage of the earth’s population considers the United States the greatest threat to world peace. After all, ours was a nation founded—in part—by religious zealots obsessed with creating a New Jerusalem in North America (native inhabitants be damned). In fact, one could plausibly argue that America’s two key founding proclivities were “city on a hill” exceptionalism and greedy conquest. Just ask a Native American. Or a Mexican.
Still, in 2018, it’s worth reviewing just a few ways the United States is, indeed, darkly exceptional.
● Other countries are sometimes aggressive and expansionist (think Russian irredentism and Chinese bullying in the South China Sea), but only the United States maintains a worldwide system of hundreds of military bases in scores of countries. The United States military even divides the entire planet into a series of geographic combatant commands (GCCs), each led by a four-star flag officer—a figure as much imperial proconsul as humble soldier. Most Americans can’t seem to fathom why these forward deployments on every continent appear aggressive to so many global citizens. Still, one wonders how the U.S. would react if China set up bases in Mexico or Russia did the same in Newfoundland.
● How about prepping for and actually fighting overseas wars? Well, we’re the champs here, too. In 2016, baseline U.S. military spending reached $611 billion, and it’s only going to rise—by about $100 billion—under Trump. That’s more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany combined. Oh, yeah, and the last six are all U.S. “allies” or “strategic partners.” Despite the prevailing rhetoric of peace and harmony, the U.S. is also the leader in global arms sales, including transactions with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
In terms of active conflict, the U.S. military has been at war now for nearly 17 straight years. In that time, America has conducted more overt regime changes—three—than any other country. Each of those regime change operations, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, has led to chaos, civil war and millions of dead. None of these post-invasion countries could reasonably be labeled free or stable despite all the bloodshed and trillions spent. And America’s wars are still spreading. In 2016 alone, the U.S. dropped 26,000-plus bombs on at least seven countries. Given the current mood in Washington, expect that number only to rise.
● Then there’s the American penchant for scuttling global agreements or retiring to pout in the corner rather than sign on to truly consequential conventions we don’t happen to like. Take the Paris Climate Accord. Every serious country—come to think of it, all countries—have now signed on to this modest global effort to stave off the effects of global warming. Everyone, that is, except Trump’s United States. Never mind that even the U.S. military considers climate change both real and a major security threat. Facts have such an annoying tendency to get in the way of things. The U.S. also hasn’t signed on to the International Criminal Court. Probably a smart move. Otherwise Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld might actually have been held accountable for, well, war crimes.
It’s not just official agreements, either. The U.S. stances on several world issues—Israel/Palestine, for example—contribute to America’s pariah status and leave it alone and unafraid. President Trump’s unprecedented decision to reverse 70 years of bipartisan policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s (but not Palestine’s) capital was a particularly “exceptional” one. After all, over 120 countries condemned his decision at the United Nations. But hey, at least the African nation of Togo backed Trump’s announcement.
Nonetheless, Trump’s move was only the latest among more than a half-century’s worth of U.S. policies backing Israel in the face of the near global condemnation of Israeli conquest and occupation since at least the Six Days’ War of 1967. Of course, there are plenty of explanations for America’s unflappable support of Israel, but one is particularly noteworthy, if counterintuitive: evangelical Christianity. That’s right, somewhere around one-third of America’s 40 million to 50 million evangelicals believe Israel has a distinct role to play in the imminent end of times. See, the Jews have to return to the Holy Land in order for Jesus Christ to come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Never mind that most of these Christians believe all those Jews will then be banished to an eternity in hell—the Israeli right still is (cynical as ever) glad for the help with their settler-colonial project. How’s that for exceptional?
● Back on the home front, the nexus of outward aggression and inward militarism is regularly on display, if, that is, you know where to look. No, I don’t mean the National Football League—though one does have to stand almost in awe of an increasing martial pageantry that blurs the line between sports stadium and Roman Coliseum. Nor am I referring to the fun new title for the Army college football team’s latest victory: the Lockheed Martin Military Bowl, a fun reminder that the military-industrial complex is alive and well. Rather, let us focus on the ways in which the empire, so to speak, has come home to roost.
It all connects. Today in America, militarized police patrol the streets of black and brown neighborhoods, sporting the same vehicles I once drove around Baghdad and Kandahar. These areas in U.S. cities are often full of desperate, impoverished citizens, the refuse of America’s hyper-free-market capitalism and resultant record income inequality.
Uneven, aggressive policing is necessary, law enforcement would argue, due to a heavily armed populace. They’re not all wrong, either. Americans are the most heavily armed people on earth. Yemen, a nation torn apart by Saudi aggression and persistent civil war, is a distant second.
All this militarized policing of an impoverished, gun-toting populace is bound to fill up the prisons. And, boy, does it. The United States has just 4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of its prisoners. Once again, the good old USA is highly exceptional, with the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world—four times as high as Saudi Arabia, which, incidentally, also beheads women for “sorcery.”
Oh, and America’s incarceration bonanza, well, it’s highly racialized. Black men are imprisoned at five times the rate of whites.
All this militarization, at home and abroad, adds up to one thing: a distinctly, and embarrassingly exceptional nation—a global pariah.
Consider it the do less strategy.
It is time for America to look itself in the proverbial mirror and ask whether there just might be a connection between military intervention abroad and persistent—though overhyped—terror attacks at home. Given the chance, and some fresh thinking, the U.S. might figure out that the less interventionist (and scandalously socialist) Scandinavians have some of the right ideas. They’re prosperous, happy and they almost never get attacked.
Only don’t expect that anytime soon in gun-loving, flag-waving, soldier-worshiping, “We’re No. 1” America. At least not until the economy truly collapses under the weight of debt, military spending and internal strife.
For now, the question is not whether the U.S. empire will recede or be eclipsed, but rather how it handles its decline. The British version of empire, the predecessor to American hegemony, fought several brutal colonial wars and left behind some intractable messes (think Palestine). But at least it knew the limits of its military muscle. Being a self-aware middleweight power, it was saved from what eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the megalomania that is the occupational disease of world conquerors.”
Will the American brand of imperialism age gracefully and quietly downsize its overseas commitments, or—as seems more likely—take the Hollywood route and go out kicking and screaming? Only instead of breast enhancements and plastic surgery, expect the empire’s aging denial to include lots of drones, bombers and boots on the ground.
Hobsbawn asked this question back in 2007, wondering if “the U.S. will learn [from the British] lesson … or be tempted to maintain an eroding global position by relying on politico-military force, and in doing so promote not global order but disorder.” The safe money is on the latter.
The sooner Americans realize the one salient, if inconvenient, truth of foreign affairs, the fewer people will have to suffer and die. The United States can be an exceptionalist empire, or it can be a laudable republic. It cannot be both.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.