Why Are We at War?

The United States is engaged in what the Pentagon calls “the long war” for control of the Muslim world, and an even longer war for what it calls “primacy” throughout the developing world.  Like the British empire under Queen Victoria in the 1800’s, we meet any resistance to our control with force.  

Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 because we backed their enemies who ruled as dictators in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Our government and business elites back repressive regimes because they benefit from the military bases and economic access they can offer.  Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups want to replace these dictatorships with their own, and rule according to the way they interpret the Koran.  

The U.S. government has no right to interfere in this domestic struggle, and pick winners and losers because of its perceived needs.  (The average American citizen, by the way, may not benefit all that much from U.S. domination.  These countries will be selling their resources to us, and letting our companies trade and invest, whoever is in charge.  You can’t eat oil,and you can’t grow without trade and investment.)


The argument for U.S. military domination of the developing world and alliance with repressive governments boils down to a creed known as exceptionalism.  Exceptionalism claims that America is a unique and altruistic force for good in the world, promoting democracy, stability, human rights, and economic growth, but we need allies, even among less-than-democratic governments, to strengthen us against other governments and movements that are hostile to our mission.  

This claim of exceptionalism provides a banner under which the imperial elite and self-interested actors can successfully ward off campaigns by American citizens against our military spending, global deployment of forces and bases, spy agencies, nuclear weapons, interventions, intimidations, and aid to repressive forces.  

These campaigns treat the symptoms; our project wants to make that treatment easier by attacking the disease itself -- exceptionalism.


The basis of the claim that America is uniquely qualified to be above other nations’ rules and interfere in their politics is found in a self-serving myth about our character and history.  The myth originated in the days when Massachusetts was a British colony, governed by religious leaders who used the Bible to justify their decisions.  

So, at its beginning, exceptionalism had nothing to do with democracy and human rights, tolerance of diversity, creativity and initiative -- all the things that truly do make America a source of interest and inspiration to others.  No, exceptionalism was originally a vision of dictatorial race rule over the Indians, and then the Africans who were brought as slaves.

Really, what was so exceptional about America before the Revolution?  Nothing – it was just a collection of colonies who stole land from the Indians.  

The Revolution against living under a monarchy did indeed made us exceptional at the time, along with the vision of self-government and personal rights contained in our core documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  But remember, the colonists had no quarrel with the monarchy until they were denied representation in the British parliament and so were taxed without representation.  

Only then did the revolutionaries decided that white men who owned property were created equal – certainly more equal than slaves, who were given a 3/5 share of a human person in our Constitution, but only to increase the number of representatives that white slave masters could send to Congress. 

Still, if it was a big step in 1775 to take up arms against a king and in 1776 to establish a government of elected officials and in 1787 to implement such a government through a written constitution with a Bill of Rights, remember that all that was over 225 years ago.  Why should that make us the developing world’s police today, or, if you look at it honestly, not the police, but the enforcer for a powerful, self-interested group, namely our government and corporate elite?


We hear constantly, from politicians of both parties, like Presidents Obama and Bush, and Secretaries of State Albright and Rice, and congressional leaders McCain and Wasserman Schultz, that we are exceptional and have a right, indeed a moral duty, to manage the developing world’s business, for the developing world’s benefit.

Why do all these politicians say we are exceptional?  It couldn’t be because of our employment, education, transportation, health, and communications systems.   We do all right, but there is nothing special about us in these areas compared to dozens of other countries.  (See Donald Kaul's piquant piece.)

No, in the mouth of an American politician, what exceptionalism really means is: we, among all other countries, have to right to bribe, threaten, and invade other countries to put friendly regimes in power and keep them there.  

It means that we claim we are exceptionally important, or exceptionally altruistic, or exceptionally something, so we get an exception to the international rules of respect for others’ rights to choose their own system of government and their own leaders.  We get to run the developing world.

And run it we do.  Ever since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1933, the United States has been engaged in a “long war” for control of the Muslim world, and the rest of the developing world as well. We back the most undemocratic and repressive regimes you can imagine – Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Chad, Bahrain, and others – because they give bases to our armed forces, information and suspects to our covert agencies, and contracts for oil and other minerals to our corporations.

This is wrong.  Other people have as much right to pick their leaders and we do.   Join the many Americans who want respect, not corporate greed, to guide our foreign policy.

Exceptionalists claim that America is different from other nations in having a commitment to maintaining global stability.  But another way to look at it is that Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal ran out of energy in the face of the drive for independence by their colonial subjects in the 1950’s.  The United States inherited the colonialists’ role, not of providing stability, but of maintaining an economic and political system that benefited the developed Europe, America, and the other developed countries.

What’s exceptional about a powerful country sending troops and money throughout the developing world to put and keep in power dictators who cooperate with its military, its spies, and its financial elites?  Isn’t that what the colonial powers did until they were thrown out of Africa, Asia, and Latin America by freedom fighters?  

It’s normal, not exceptional, for great powers to dominate poorer countries, as long as their armed forces are willing to die and their citizens are willing to pay. 

Recall the phrase, “present company excepted,” when we leave somebody out of a generalization. Well, aren’t we “exceptional” only in the sense that we are the “present company” that excepts itsef from the rules that apply to others?
We are unexceptional.  Unexceptional America.

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