October 26, 2004
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
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 in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World
. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism