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The Independent Institute
Commentary

American Exceptionalism


Many Americans, like the citizens of dominant nations of the past, believe that their way of life is superior and should be shared with other peoples—often at gunpoint. Lately, this American exceptionalism has assumed even more pernicious forms.

Whether called the Bush I administration’s “New World Order” or the Clinton administration’s “Engagement and Enlargement” or the Bush II administration’s effort to “liberate” Afghanistan, Iraq, and perhaps the entire Middle East, using military force to bring democracy and market economies to errant peoples has been a staple of both Democratic and Republican administrations since World War II. Similarly, the Roman, British, Spanish and other empires believed they were civilizing conquered lands with their ways of doing things.

And like the empires of old, soaring U.S. rhetoric often hides ulterior pursuits. For example, the United States is often the rhetorical champion of human rights but, during war, sometimes flouts them. Recently, the United States violated the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners by capturing prisoners outside the Iraqi zone of conflict, and hiding the fact from the International Red Cross. This behavior should not come as a surprise, given the Bush II administration’s flagrant attempt to argue that the conventions did not apply to enemy fighters in Afghanistan. The fighters were labeled “enemy combatants” so that they would not get the conventions’ protections for prisoners of war. The Afghan prisoners are to be tried in kangaroo military courts that fail to meet both international and U.S. standards of fair judicial process.

Also, the Bush II administration’s flouting of the conventions sent a message to some U.S. military personnel at various prisons, including Abu Ghraib, that abusing detainees was acceptable behavior.

U.S. pretensions of moral superiority overseas are also belied in other ways. How does invading a sovereign Iraq and deposing its government differ from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of a sovereign Kuwait in 1990? Even in the very worst case—Iraqi possession weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons—wouldn’t Saddam Hussein have had a right to defend his country with such armaments? Other despotic nations have been allowed by the United States to develop nuclear weapons—the Soviet Union, radical Maoist China, and, most recently, Pakistan.

Besides, the United States possesses the most capable nuclear arsenal on the planet, has threatened to attack with nuclear weapons on more than one occasion, and is the only nation to have ever used them. This double standard shows that the United States often runs a simplistic and hypocritical Tarzan-style foreign policy: “We good, you bad.” People around the world readily identify U.S. hypocrisy, but many Americans can’t see that their government sometimes behaves like the empires of old.

For example, Americans would shudder at any comparison between U.S. behavior and that of Imperial Japan during the 1930s. Yet top U.S. decision-makers have alluded several times to one of the major goals of the militarized U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East—access to supplies of oil. Similarly, Imperial Japan romped all over East Asia to gain access to raw materials, including oil, for its industrial economy. In both cases, many economists would say that simply paying the going price will ensure access to oil and other raw materials much more cheaply than paying for the military power needed to maintain the flow of such resources.

Criticizing the U.S. government’s militaristic actions overseas is not the same as denigrating America. America is exceptional. As conservative George Will has said, America is the only nation founded on an ideal. That ideal is liberty for the individual, both politically and economically. The people of the United States have enjoyed freedoms unparalleled in human history. When the United States crusades overseas and attempts to use force to bring such liberties to people who have never before experienced them, it rarely succeeds and even undermines those values at home. Conquered peoples, and the rest of the undemocratic world, merely associate “democracy and free markets” with foreign invasion, thus undermining the spread of individual political and economic freedoms. Meanwhile, every overseas war in which the United States has been embroiled has undermined individual liberties at home. For example, the Bush administration’s war on terrorism has given us the draconian PATRIOT Act, which allows more U.S. government snooping into the lives of its citizens.

Instead of conducting unnecessary, deceptive, hypocritical and counterproductive foreign military adventures, the United States should lead by example. The United States should be a beacon of liberty for other nations to emulate. When the Soviet bloc crumbled, Eastern Europe used American ideals to throw off the shackles of oppression. Thus, the U.S. government should be less insecure about a failure to spread American ideals in the absence of military coercion.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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