On July 4, 1821 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, after reading the full text of the Declaration of Independence, delivered a remarkable speech on America’s foreign policy that is now remembered by a single sentence: “But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
On March 7, 2016 the US government dropped bombs and missiles from drones and manned aircraft on a gathering in Somalia—supposedly a graduation ceremony for a terrorist training school—killing at least 150 people. Many of the individuals killed have not been identified, but the Obama administration claimed they were all “terrorists.”
Note the logical contradiction. If an individual cannot be identified, it is impossible to identify, absent a sighting of an actual commission of an act by that unidentified individual, the acts that individual has committed. Nevertheless, the administration affixed the label “terrorist”—which indicts, tries, convicts, and punishes, often lethally, anyone so labelled—to people whose identities and acts remain unknown. It’s the thumb up or down of Roman emperors.
If 10 percent or more of the 150 killed in Somalia were innocent civilians (perhaps proud relatives of the terrorist “graduates”), the death toll of such innocents is greater than the fourteen killed in San Bernardino last December. However, America operates under a reverse formulation of the Golden Rule: do unto others what would be intolerable if done unto us. Since World War II that formulation has been the guiding principle of US foreign policy. The Golden Rule implies coexistence and cooperation among equals. The US government has divided the world into friends and enemies. Those not “with us” are enemies. Those “with us” must accept US “leadership,” that is, domination. The US government helpfully exempts itself and chosen friends from the standards to which it holds everyone else.
The government has orchestrated or had a hand in regime change or attempted regime change in Syria (1949, 2012), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1957), Congo (1960), the Dominican Republic (1960), Cuba (repeatedly, most notably the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961), South Vietnam (1963), Nicaragua (1981-1986), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003, 2014), Libya (2011), and Ukraine (2014). This list is not exhaustive of the known efforts, and there may be others that are unknown.The “force for good,” as those involved like to call themselves, has helped depose some truly heinous characters. It has also gotten rid of democratically elected governments and has replaced both “good” and “bad” governments with repressive or downright tyrannical ones that are supposedly aligned with US interests. The US government’s regime changing has been cynically opportunistic and bloody, the noxious stench of hypocrisy wafting from the carnage.
The government has not been fastidious about whom it embraces as friends. During the Cold War, whether repressive autocrats were deemed dictators or authoritarians depended on whether they were aligned with the USSR or the US. In 1953, the US and Great Britain deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry and tilting towards the Soviet Union, and installed the “authoritarian” Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The opposition he crushed; the victims of SAVAK, his US-trained secret police; the average Iranian living in constant fear of the repressive state, and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who the Shah imprisoned for 18 months and then exiled for denouncing the Iranian and US governments, did not appreciate the authoritarian-dictator distinction. It is a mark of ignorance, stupidity, disingenuousness, or all of the above—take your pick—that many within the US intelligence and foreign policy communities publicly expressed surprise at the 1979 Khomeini-led revolution and shock at the depths of the revolutionaries’ anti-Americanism.
Islamic fanatics spreading terrorism and tyranny are the new communists. So why is the US joined at the hip with Sunni Saudi Arabia, a fanatic Islamic, tyrannical state repeatedly implicated in spreading terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks that launched the war on terrorism? The obvious answers: it sits on top of the world’s largest pool of oil, buys a lot of US arms, and spouts the US anti-terrorist line (as long as the terrorists in question are Shiite rather than Sunni), quashing any moral misgivings. The Somali drone strike is emblematic of how ethically unmoored the government has become. It claims the right to conduct such strikes anywhere on the planet against anyone it deems to be a terrorist, often without the permission of or notice to the government of the country droned. A foreign nation’s unauthorized drone strike on the US would be regarded as an outrageous act of war.
Perhaps if the US wore an “imperial diadem,” even one “flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power,” it would provide some perverse justification for its reverse Golden Rule, but as history repeatedly demonstrates, the US government’s crimson campaigns have diminished, not increased, its power. Supporting tyranny, authoritarian or dictatorial, has shattered the reverence in which the US and its stated ideals were once held by millions of people throughout the world. Much blood has been spilled, treasure wasted, and debt incurred in a five-decade string of inconclusive or losing wars that have devastated the countries in which they were fought. Governments have been upended, chaos and violence unleashed, terrorism fomented, and victims displaced and forced to flee as a direct result—blowback—of US sponsored wars and insurrections in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
There is no more hated institution in the world than the US government. Drenched in blood, it has become the monster it purportedly sought to destroy. Drama, rather than politics or history, provides the archetypes for a once exceptional nation that is now neither “the dictatress of the world” nor “the ruler of her own spirit.” During a somnambulant soliloquy Lady Macbeth asks: “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” Yet she can’t wash the blood from her hands: “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Sleep allowed no escape from perdition, her soul was irretrievably lost. So too was Michael Corleone’s, at the end of Godfather II, as the capo dei capi sits alone in his boathouse, contemplating the lake where the brother he had just had murdered lies submerged. One cannot love what America once was and love what it has become. A revolution, peaceful or otherwise, that does not put America’s redemption at the forefront of its aspirations is a revolution not worth fighting.
WHAT AMERICA ONCE WAS
A TOWERING NOVEL OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION