Barrack Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech included this self-congratulatory little gem:
“But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions—not just treaties and declarations—that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.”
Before Mr. Obama dislocates a shoulder patting himself on the back, maybe we should look at the record.
When it comes to guaranteeing stability and promoting democracy, the United States’ record is pretty clear. “Global security” and “stability” mean the security and stability of a particular global order guaranteed by the United States—a global order that reflects the interests of the coalition of class forces that control the American government.
The United States’ record with regard to “enabling democracy” is also clear. When it has best served the interests of the corporate world order to replace a dictatorship with a formal democracy, the United States has done so. But when it has best suited the interests of corporate power to overthrow a democracy by force, the United States government has not hesitated to do so.
A lot of American blood has, indeed, been shed in battlefields around the world. Even more blood has been shed by the people who lived in those countries, fighting American soldiers. And the wars in which all that blood has been shed have had little to do with the prosperity, freedom, or other interests of the people where the wars were fought.
The list of killing fields, stained with “the blood of our citizens”—and of many other people—is indeed a long one. It includes the millions killed by military regimes and death squads in Central America, from the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954 to U.S. support for the Contras’ terrorism in the 1980s. It includes the victims of the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone of Latin America, installed with the support of Operation Condor in the ’60s and ’70s. It includes the hundreds of thousands massacred by Suharto (with the CIA’s Jakarta station drawing up the hit lists) and millions more by Mobutu.
“Freedom,” in operational terms, has translated into whatever degree of freedom was compatible with secure profits for United Fruit Company and ITT—which wasn’t much.
More often than not, the United States has intervened to protect the corporations who own the world from the people who live in it. As Noam Chomsky put it, the Cold War in practical terms can be summed up as a war by the U.S. against the Third World, and by the USSR against its satellites, with the “threat” of the opposing superpower in both cases serving mainly as a pretext. It’s a lot like Emmanuel Goldstein described the three rival superpowers of “1984”: three sheaves of corn propping each other up, and enabling one another to defend their respective internal systems of power.
One of the most central items in the American creed is the belief that the troops “protect our freedom.” By definition, any war the United States fights is to “defend our freedoms.” Just watch the cable news shows, or read your local newspaper’s editorials on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, if you don’t believe it. If any one belief is central to the ideology of One Hundred Percent Americanism, this is it.
But it doesn’t bear much looking into. I once saw JCS Chairman Richard Myers on C-SPAN, addressing the Army War College, criticizing China (with a straight face) for having military forces beyond its “legitimate defensive needs.” This from the highest-ranking military officer in a global superpower whose military budget exceeded those of the rest of the world combined.
When most people of common sense think of “defending our country,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably defending against an actual military attack on the territory of the United States. But if you look at all the foreign “threats” the U.S. government “defends” itself against, strangely enough they mainly involve what some country on the other side of the world is doing within a few hundred miles of its own borders. Most of them don’t even have the logistical capability to project force more than a few hundred miles outside their own borders. So if you think about it, it’s only fair that the U.S. military “defend our country” and “protect our freedoms” on the other side of the world. If Uncle Sam weren’t generous enough to meet them more than halfway, we’d never get to have any wars.
Myers’ comments about China, and the nature of the other “threats” the U.S. national security state points to, provide an interesting glimpse into what “American exceptionalism” is really all about. The United States is the only country in the world that is permitted to define as “excessive military capabilities” the ability to successfully resist an American attack. The United States is the only country with the right to define as “aggression” what another country does in its own immediate vicinity on the other side of the world—while the United States itself intervenes militarily all over the globe to force others to obey its will. The United States is the only country which is allowed to define a “threat” as another country’s ability to disobey the orders of the global hegemon within a few hundred miles of its own borders. By definition, a “threat” is any country that doesn’t do what it’s told.
So when Liz Cheney criticizes Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism, she’s all wet. He believes in it, all right. As Chomsky pointed out, American liberals, as much as American conservatives, share the implicit assumption that “we own the world.” They may believe that Vietnam or Iraq was a “mistake,” but never for one second do they question the premise that the United States has the right to intervene in such cases.
Let’s get something clear. The United States’ military does not “defend our freedom.” There hasn’t been a war in my lifetime that involved a genuine foreign military threat to our freedom, and the United States government has been actively involved in suppressing freedom around the world for decades. The United States government is a threat to our freedom, and the freedom of people everywhere.