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The Dangers of American Exceptionalism

The Second Presidential Debate caused quite a media uproar this past Sunday, covering topics such as health care, trickle-down economics and foreign policy. It is the latter topic that causes me the most apprehension, specifically Hillary Clinton’s plans for a no-fly zone over Syria. In one of her Primary debates with Bernie Sanders, Clinton describes the rationale behind her plan. According to Secretary Clinton, a no-fly zone will “create safe refuges within Syria to protect people on the ground both from Assad’s forces, who are continuing to drop barrel bombs, and from ISIS.” A laudable goal if ever I’ve heard one.

I firmly believe that Secretary Clinton is sincere in her intentions. In my opinion, she honestly believes that a no-fly zone is in the best interest of the Syrian people. This is why I reject all that nonsense about “Killery, the warmonger.” Foreign policy is a complicated business, and there are seldom any clear-cut answers. Hillary Clinton is not evil. But she is arrogant.

It’s not really Secretary Clinton’s fault; hers is an arrogance that is shared with 318 million of her fellow citizens, an arrogance that stems for a disease of the mind commonly known as American Exceptionalism. At its core, American Exceptionalism is the belief that the United States is a nation of unique moral calibre that acts in the service of higher ideals such as liberty and justice. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Holding prisoners for years without trial or even formal charges, employing torture as form of intelligence gathering – especially in light of the fact that torture is an ineffective method of acquiring useful intelligence – drone strikes that kill indiscriminately: these are not the actions of a country with an unshakable commitment to the ideals of freedom and liberty.

This misguided belief in American moral superiority has been the cause of one foreign policy disaster after another, as – in many cases – it has led Americans to believe that providence itself is on their side. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2004, George W. Bush claimed that America had “a calling from beyond the stars” to stand for freedom. Now, perhaps you think that was simple campaign rhetoric. If so, I invite you to contemplate the fact that roughly one year earlier, President Bush told Jacques Chirac (then President of France) that the US invasion of Iraq was justified as the fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy.

This is not an indictment of Christianity; it is an indictment of American arrogance, of the misguided belief that America can do no wrong. In fact, the last fifteen years of American foreign policy are really a textbook example of the Dunning Kruger Effect. In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld assured us that the Iraq War would be a short war. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he promised, “but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”

The last group of American soldiers left Iraq on December 18, 2011. The war lasted almost nine years and claimed the lives of 4497 Americans according to the Department of Defense. The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs of Brown University estimates that at least 165 000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a direct result of war related violence from the United States and its allies. They are also quick to point out that this estimate is almost certainly too low.

In November of 2005, President Bush claimed that the primary goal of the war was a peaceful Iraq with a democratically elected government and a thriving economy. Did America achieve those goals? Not even remotely. True, Iraq does have a democratically elected government, but peace? Prosperity? Even prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2014, the situation was dire. Research by the Global Policy Forum in 2013 indicates that prior to the civil war, as many as four million Iraqis had been displaced from their homes with 100 daily fatalities as a direct result of sectarian violence. Unemployment was as high as 60% with harsh austerity measures imposed by the IMF. No more food or health subsidies for the residents of a war-torn country.

What about Libya, a campaign of great personal significance to Secretary Clinton? The institution of an internationally-administrated no-fly zone over Libyan airspace was supposed to protect Libyan rebels from the forces of Col Moammar Gaddafi, a man who went on record stating that he intended to show no mercy and that he would hunt down rebels in every single dwelling. The Washington Post describes Secretary Clinton’s transformation from a reluctant skeptic of military intervention to one of its most vocal proponents. One of her conditions was a direct request for military intervention from the Arab League, a condition that was met on March 12 of 2011. To her credit, Secretary Clinton was instrumental in holding together the coalition enforcing the no-fly zone. Her success in this regard is a testament to her skill as a diplomat.

But once again, we must ask ourselves what happened afterward. Libya devolved into a failed state and a hotbed of terrorist activity. Most of the country became unsafe for ordinary citizens; assassinations are commonplace, and essential services such as water and electricity experience frequent interruptions. Many Libyans blame the West for abandoning them.

Let’s be clear on a few things: Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi were both brutal, vicious dictators. You will get no argument from me on that point. Removing a dictator with a penchant for violence against his own people is a moral good; there’s no question about that. The moral quandary comes when we ponder the question of whether removing the dictator was worth all the suffering that occurred in the aftermath, and whether there might have been other, less bloody ways to achieve the same ends.

Should America have done nothing while Gaddafi slaughtered his own people? I can’t answer that question. No one can answer that question. The question itself is a Ceteris Paribus fallacy because the only legitimate answer would require us to see into other timelines and discover what would have happened if we made different choices.

If I’m honest, I must admit that I can’t tell you with any real conviction whether a no-fly zone in Libya was the right call. But here’s the rub: neither can Hillary Clinton. Secretary Clinton is an experienced, competent, admirable diplomat, but she is not omniscient. No amount of political or diplomatic experience can grant one the necessary foresight to predict the outcome of a war. War, by its very nature, is too unpredictable, too chaotic and too bloody for any human being to say with any reasonable amount of certainty “This is how it will play out.” In my opinion, Secretary Clinton is playing with fire, and if history repeats itself, it will be the Syrian people who get burned. 

Time and time again, we see that predictions made by Washington on the outcome of American military intervention are proven wrong. Time and time again, the United States begins a military campaign with lofty aspirations and excessive optimism. Time and time again, the scenarios put forward by the Pentagon are shattered the instant they come into contact with the innumerable variables of real-world warfare. Time and time again, Libyans, Iraqis, Afghans and any number of other people the world over pay a heavy price in blood and tears thanks to the decisions of their would-be American saviours.

That Hillary Clinton prefers action to inaction in matters of foreign policy doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the fact that I have seen no evidence that Secretary Clinton is aware of just how limited her ability to predict the outcome of her actions really is.

The ugly downside of American Exceptionalism is the ethnocentric and often racist belief that American lives are somehow more valuable than any other lives. If you think that’s an exaggeration, here’s Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein saying in no uncertain terms that the death of four-year-old girls in the Middle East would be acceptable collateral damage if it prevents four-year-old American children from dying.

The bottom line, in the end, is: Whose four-year-old gets killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that four-year-olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.” How dare he? How dare any of you? This is the disgusting philosophy that underpins much of America’s foreign policy.

And yet the President of the United States has the audacity to call himself (or herself) “the Leader of the Free World.” As if the rest of us voted for his or her leadership! As if the rest of us are interested in following America’s lead on anything!

If you’re an American who is currently entertaining the idea of leaping into the comment section to give me a piece of your mind, then I strongly suggest that you check your privilege and start listening to the voices of people who live outside your nation. I’m willing to bet you’ll find that most them are fed up with America’s constant interference in their country’s affairs.

Rich Penney is a Science Fiction author and futurist. Check out his books here, and follow him on Twitter. @Rich_Penney

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