Obama and US exceptionalism

When the ‘world’s policeman’ has failed the world, isn’t it time to appoint a new one?

US President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the US Military Academy at West Point [Getty Image]

At the beginning of 2014, the US polling agency Gallup surveyed respondents in 65 countries and found that the United States – not Russia nor “radical Islam” – was considered to be the greatest threat to world peace, followed by Pakistan and China.

US President Barack Obama, in his speech to West Point graduate officers, ever so bravely delivered before an audience who were literally paid to applaud – chose not to address this uncomfortable truth.

Around 1,000 US military bases continue to squat on foreign soil: A solid line of bases stretches from Greenland, to Iceland, through the UK, Germany, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and down into the Gulf. Troops may be withdrawn from Iraq but bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates and Turkey host 300 combat aircraft, 30 warships, and combat-ready personnel numbering about 35,000.

Several more permanent bases packed with highly trained troops and high-tech weaponry remain in nearby Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan where the Americans have abjectly failed to install an operational democracy.

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East spiked after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as it did in Europe and ongoing support for Israel has caused consternation. Although educated, English-speaking, urban elites tend to support US presence in the region, Pew Research Center found in July 2013 that four out of five Arabs do not have a positive view of the US in the region. In comparison, China enjoyed 50 percent support for their role in Middle East affairs.

Obama made no mention of the vaunted so-called pivot to Asia, but arrangements are already underway to silently einforce US imperialism in the region. In Japan, anti-American sentiment has forced the US to reduce the visibility of its military presence, but weaponry has been quietly upgraded to balance this out. Meanwhile, in the Philippines earlier this year, US negotiators shrewdly chose to deploy training teams rather than combat troops and yet more unpopular bases. There are similar developments of late across South East Asia.

To put this silent quasi-imperialism in perspective: The offshore network of US bases outnumbers Russia’s meagre scattering of foreign outposts by 50 to one. The Chinese only built their first overseas base in 2011. The European Union has none.

US monolithic dominance

Given the global opposition to US monolithic dominance, it was disappointing to see Obama, in his West Point speech, refuse to acknowledge that most in the developing world, and many in Europe, clearly believe the US has failed as the world’s policeman.

Fault Lines – Iraq: After the Americans

Obama argued that many around the world look to the US when they need help. This is undoubtedly true: The mothers of schoolgirls in the Boko Haram kidnapping incident were no doubt heartened when the US announced they would be sending troops to help, as were the people of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. There are all sorts of legitimate security threats: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, al-Qaeda, Chinese aggression, a North Korea with nuclear weapons.

But instead of giving way to more capable policemen, Obama trotted out the arrogance that has become typical of Washington – “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being” – as if the world’s only shot at stability was continuing to follow the US. He cherry-picked examples of successful US aid while ignoring the deadly bungles of the past.

The US is exceptional in that through all the strife of the 20th and 21st centuries, Americans have rarely suffered as much as the rest of the world has. During World War II, as JT Dykman at the Eisenhower Institute put it: “No cities …were besieged … no part of our population was enslaved, starved or murdered, and not one village, town or city was completely destroyed.”

Although Americans certainly suffered in Iraq, how does that compare to the Lancet’s estimate of 600,000 violent Iraqi deaths, or even the lowest estimate from the Associated Press of 110,000? What has Iraq got in return? Al-Qaeda, increased corruption and an obliterated economy.

Obama himself mentioned the US’ role as the world’s policeman. I’d like to see a world where we hire a new global policeman. Why?

Firstly, an effective policeman must consistently support human rights. Secondly, a policeman must be competent. Thirdly, a policeman must be controlled by a responsible management team, ideally with some sort of democratic mandate. Finally, a policeman must have empathy with the people it is policing.

Washington has not been a good policeman because it does not favour democracy for other nations, despite the rhetoric. For example, the US State Department vociferously backed Mubarak, Assad, Gaddafi and Ben Ali for decades, current or former leaders of Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia respectively, then promptly shifted gear and backed the Arab Spring.

Talk to the people of South and Central America, who remember Chile’s leader Augusto Pinochet, Former President of the Dominican Republic Rafael Trujillo (who ran “rape squads” and was backed by the CIA) or Nicaragua’s former President Anastasio Somoza, and see if they think Washington supports democracy. Talk to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who have faced terrible massacres and see what they make of Washington.

On the second criteria, competence. I will say only this: friendly fire, civilian casualties and former US President George Bush.

Thirdly, effective management with a democratic mandate. Structurally, US foreign policy decisions rest too much on one man. If the man happens to be a narcissist (Bush Jnr), or a weakling (Obama), or a megalomaniac (former US presidents Nixon and Reagan) – the rest of the world pays in death and destruction.

Both Republican voters – who must bear slightly more blame for US exceptionalism – and the flawed democratic system that American voters must endure, are to blame.

But there is also an unwillingness to engage culturally with the outside world, which means the US fails on the fourth criteria: empathy and understanding of the world they seek to police.

‘Fear of unfriendliness’

Of the 300 million citizens in the US, just 30 percent have passports. More than half of Americans have never travelled outside the US. A survey in 2003 by Conde Nast Traveller showed that 64 percent of Americans had a “fear of unfriendliness” as the top concern for travelling abroad during times of war.

The US media simply does not do its job in disseminating information, especially at critical moments where other nations’ lives and livelihoods are in the balance, and in informing voters about what their leaders are really up to.

Head to Head – Should the West end its wars?

For example, Newsweek‘s Washington bureau chief and CNN show host Howard Kurtz called US media coverage of discussions leading up to Iraq invasion in 2003 “the media’s greatest failure in modern times. Major news organisations aided and abetted the Bush administration’s march to war.”

In the seven months before the war, Kurtz found more than 140 front-page stories at the Washington Post were heavily focused on administration rhetoric against Iraq: “Cheney says Iraqi strike is justified”; “War Cabinet argues for Iraq attack” etc.

And despite spending more on defence than the next eight global powers combined, US journalistic reporting on how this money is spent is limited. Publishers are largely privatised and serve their shareholders, meaning expensive and risky investigative journalism is under-exposed in favour of political gossip and shallow policy reviews.

And after a year of attacks on whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and digital journalists such as Barrett Brown and revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, the US plunged 13 spots in global press freedom rankings to number 46 in 2013, according to Reporters without Borders.

A thought for Obama: Wage growth in the US has flatlined for a generation. Middle-income workers make no more now than they did in the late 1970s. Among the world’s wealthy countries, the US ranks last on inequality, which is growing at a faster rate than that of any of is peers. Some 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty. Meanwhile the rest of the world has suffered while the US has been the world’s policeman.

Ending US exceptionalism and giving way to a new world policeman would put Obama in the history books for all the right reasons, which is undoubtedly something any president yearns for.

As a global community, we need to be frank: The US has failed us as the world’s policeman. And if Washington, or Americans, resist or criticise this move, the world will know for certain that Americans want an empire, regardless of global peace and stability.

Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK, and international affairs including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.