Notes from the Margins | Goodbye to Uncle Sam?

American hesitation over intervening militarily in Syria has led some hawkish interventionists to worry that the United States may be heading towards a new period of isolationism and abandoning its global leadership role. In his latest column, Matt Carr argues that this might not be such a bad thing.

New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Tuesday, September 24, 2013 12:43 - 1 Comment

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US Flag Around the Earth

(source: theragblog.blogspot.com)

The US bombardment-that-never-was in Syria has provoked an array of negative responses amongst those who wanted such an outcome, which spans a wide political spectrum. Republican hard-rightists and liberal interventionists alike have expressed alarm at the hesitancy and incompetence of the Obama administration and the war-weary ‘isolationist’ mood of the American public.   Some have described Obama’s decision not to bomb as an abandonment of the Syrian people. Others have described the Russian diplomatic démarche as a dangerous symptom of the waning of US global power – a prospect that they regard as a disaster not only for Syria but for the whole Middle East and beyond.

In Foreign Policy magazine, Will Marshall worried that US reluctance to intervene in Syria might reprise the British withdrawal from the Middle East after Suez. Such a development, in Marshall’s opinion, would bring ‘chaos’ to the Middle East, while ‘the resulting retraction of American power will leave the international system rudderless.’

Over at the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash also viewed America’s hesitation over Syria with anxiety and hoped that it presaged a period of introspective soul-searching and renewal, after which the United States would once again re-emerge as ‘the indispensable guardian of some kind of liberal international order.’ If not, Garton Ash warned darkly, ‘To the many critics and downright enemies of the US in Europe and across the globe, I say only this:  if it didn’t like that old world in which the US regularly intervened, just see how you like the new one in which it does not.’

The idea that the United States – or more specifically American military power – is the bulwark of international ‘order’ is one of the essential tenets of the propaganda system that has accompanied America’s transformation into the ‘indispensable nation’ since World War II. It’s an argument which assumes that a) the world must have (Western) military power to provide it with ‘leadership’, and b) that America’s actions in the world, unlike Russia or China for example, are always driven by moral and benign purposes, or at least have an ability to produce benign consequences even when they aren’t.

This view was summed up by CNN’s celebrity anchor-woman Christiane Amanpour, who recently berated some of her guests for not wanting to bomb Syria, and praised America as ‘the most moral country in the world based on the most moral principles in the world.’ Amanpour subsequently twittered that this extraordinary outburst was motivated by a ‘passion for justice and the moral imperative, & indeed America’s proud history of now-forgotten humanitarian interventionism.’

It would be something of an understatement to point out that these paeans to American military power omit a great deal of inconvenient material from the historical record. Amanpour presumably was not referring to the 1898-1902 ‘benevolent assimilation’ of the Philippines in her ‘proud history’, in which tens of thousands of Filipinos died in concentration camps, while thousands were subjected to the ‘water cure’ or had their homes destroyed in scorched earth counterinsurgency campaigns. She probably did not include the carpet bombing of towns and cities during the Korean war that reduced much of urban North Korea to rubble. Or the defoliation programmes of Operation Ranch Hand and the ‘free fire zones’ and ‘ search & destroy’ operations of the Vietnam war.

In her insistence that American military power was used for ‘moral’ purposes, Amanpour was clearly not referring to the numerous covert operations during the Cold War, in which the US destabilised countries, helped suppress national liberation movements, overthrew democratically-elected governments of a leftist or left-of-centre disposition, supported dictatorships and military regimes in Indonesia, Greece, El Salvador, Guatemala, and provided military and police training institutions to some of the worst abusers of human rights in the second half of the twentieth century, through the School of the Americas and other military and police training programs through which US counterinsurgency doctrines were disseminated. During the 1980s the Reagan administration adopted an interventionist policy of ‘ rollback’, in which CIA/intelligence assets trafficked in cocaine and heroin in order to fund covert wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, while simultaneously arming Iran and Iraq in order to keep them fighting each other. How about American support for the Khymer Rouge during the 1980s? Was that ‘moral’ too?

Amanpour might well think that it was, but a more realistic and undoubtedly more honest assessment of the underlying principles behind these interventions  was expressed by George Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War containment policy, in a 1948 memo which declared:

“we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 % of  its population… In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming ; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

That is not a particularly appealing or uplifting philosophy, but it nevertheless tells us a great deal more about America’s actions in the world than vapid dreamy talk of morality as the hallmark of American exceptionalism. As for the idea that American military power is a guarantor of international ‘order’; that may be true if ‘order’ refers to global capitalism in its neo-liberal variant. But it is worth reminding ourselves of the longer term consequences of some of these ‘interventions’, in the narco wars, criminal violence and endemic poverty that continues to plague Central American countries where the Reagan administration fought so many of its dirty wars; in the continued ‘blowback’ from US/Saudi support for the ‘Muj’ in Afghanistan; in the trail of  mayhem left by the 9/11 terror wars, in Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan or Somalia. None of this has made the Middle East or the wider world more stable or secure. Even examples of ‘good’ American interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Panama or Haiti have been driven by geostrategic objectives rather than moral imperatives and produced flawed outcomes that do not provide models for future repetitions, except in the imaginations of the most starry-eyed advocates of American military might.

To point this out is not to suggest that everything bad that happens in the world originates from America, or that America behaves any worse than any other militarily powerful state. But America’s unprecedented global power, its moral self-righteousness and its militarist addiction represent more of a threat to global stability – and Middle Eastern stability in particular – than the monsters it seeks to destroy. Today, at a time when more than 800 Iraqis are still being killed every month, it is grotesque and almost incredible that America can even think that it has any right whatsoever to intervene in Syria. The savage massacre in Nairobi  is just one more consequence of the Bush administration’s disastrous decision to back the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, which destroyed the Union of Islamic Courts and ushered in the extremist Islamo-nationalism of al-Shabaab.

Again and again in recent years, the American foreign policy elite and political establishment have shot first and asked questions later, and often not even then. Despite this record, American military bases and training programmes are popping up all over Africa as part of its Africom mandate. As a result of its more recent ‘Pacific tilt’, the US is ringing China with military bases in a not-every-subtle attempt to prepare for a much bigger confrontation in the years to come. It is not difficult to imagine what Americans would say if China began to establish military bases in the Philippines, Mexico or Canada say, yet no one questions America’s right to establish bases wherever it likes. Today, America’s pursuit of ‘full spectrum dominance’ continues to drive a search for new weapons and strategies for fighting wars in space and the ‘feral cities’ of the Third World.

It is difficult to see how this global projection of military power will lead to a more stable and peaceful international order. On the contrary, the more America seeks to dominate the world militarily, the more likely it is that its enemies will arm themselves with even more powerful weapons in order to resist such domination or take the North Korean nuclear option in order to ensure that one day cruise missiles are not pointed at them.

Doomsdaying end-of-empire predictions of the limits of American military power are almost certainly premature, but such a prospect should be welcomed, not feared, and not because Russia or China and other supposedly amoral countries would step onto the stage to take its place. What the world does not need – and which in any case – will not tolerate, is a new imperial era under any hegemonic power. If the concept of ‘international community’ is ever to have any real meaning, it cannot  serve as a license for a handful of countries clustering under the umbrella of American military power to pursue their own strategic interests in the name of phony universalist principles. The problems that humanity faces in the 21st century, from climate change, energy and resource depletion, war, terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation and security are ultimately collective problems that must be solved collectively – and not through the self-interested ‘leadership’ of a superpower posing as the saviour of humanity.

The world would not miraculously turn into a peaceful egalitarian utopia if the United States abandoned its claims to global ‘leadership’ and the ‘American century’ came to a premature close, but it does not need an American military policeman that always seems to believe that every problem can be solved by a few well-placed missiles. Nor would it do America any harm to break with a militarist addiction that has produced numerous bloody failures and few successes, and which, as Eisenhower once warned, threatens to rot the American republic and drain its economic resources.

So let the legions return. Let the bases close. Let the cruise missiles remain unfired. Let America take its place as one nation amongst many others and obey the same rules that it expects others to obey. And let it also continue to play a part in the world, and bring its best national qualities to bear in collaboration with the best that other countries have to offer. That will not be an easy adjustment to make for a country that has come to define itself through its military power. But other countries have made this transformation in the past, and the sooner America makes a start by ceasing to regard itself as indispensable, the sooner we might begin to move towards a different kind of world order, with the principles of justice, international law and common security at its core.

Matt Carr

Matt Carr is a writer, blogger and freelance print and radio journalist. He is the author of My Father's House, Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism. His next book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent was published in autumn 2012. He has lectured in a number of UK universities, schools and cultural institutions. He blogs at www.infernalmachine.co.uk.

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Goodbye to Uncle Sam? | Matt Carr's Infernal Machine
Sep 24, 2013 15:03

[…] My new piece for Ceasefire magazine.  You can read the rest here […]

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