Monday, February 23, 2015

On American Exceptionalism

Fellow Conquistadores,

Time passes, snow melts, spring is suddenly possible.  Yet somehow the same old self-destructive reflexes appear to be animating our foreign policy, the extraordinary presumption that ours is the responsibility to meddle worldwide in societies we do not begin to understand, to manipulate outcomes and advance hidden interests wherever that serves our unacknowledged commercial purposes.  I will be getting into aspects of all this as a speaker at the 2015 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida on Friday, February 27 at 9AM.  Subject of our exchange:  Can We Keep Our Rights and Protect Our Country Too?

The public-relations justification we have been putting out lately to explain our maneuvering is time-honored American Exceptionalism.  We know better, we can do more.  The cultures and historical experience of the subjects of our attentions seem beside the point, and are rarely mentioned.  It remains quite enough that we are able to "project power," and we do. It remains impolite and worse to bring up the interests whose profit is almost always out there driving these calamitous decisions.  What seems to be lacking in so many discussions is some sense of how we got historically into the role we now find ourselves assuming and where all this is taking us -- all of us, not merely a few special interests.

Throughout the Middle East we are attempting to impose our own terms, political and commercial, on a culture that as recently as 1917 regarded itself as a great, tolerant center of civilization, an achievement comparable with China at its height, or nineteenth century Europe.  The collapse and utter dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 left it to assorted Western governments to draw the borders of new states in the wreckage and impose self-serving commercial conditions on the entire region. In Iran, for example, as oil became the prize throughout the area, the British moved in and demanded a monopoly of the resources for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor to British Petroleum. When Dr. Mohammed Mossodegh, the country's sickly premier, took steps in 1953 to nationalize Iran's oil fields, the British Secret Service and the CIA sent  in the Agency's top operative in the region, Kermit Roosevelt, with a car trunk full of currency, to pay for a revolution in the streets that brought the corrupt Shah back to run the country as the foremost U.S. military base in the Middle East.   The U.S. oil majors moved in immediately and grabbed important concessions.  When another revolution under the Ayatollahs evicted the Shah in 1979 and nationalized the oil reserves, the grinding enmity between Iran and America began which persists to this day.  Several long afternoons spent with a disheartened Kermit Roosevelt while I was researching my book The Old Boys filled in a lot of the details.

There is an analogous process behind what happened more recently in Iraq.  When Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party came to power in Iraq they nationalized the Iraqi oil fields.  We lived with that and actively assisted Hussein throughout his war with Iran.  Ultimately, we invaded Iraq on the WMD pretext and left the shaky and vulnerable Shiite government  that presides at the moment.  Meanwhile, oil drillers from many places, especially the American majors and Halliburton, are back in Iraq and hard at work.

The notion that we are the disinterested Good Guys around the planet, righting international wrongs and feeding the needy, is overdue for an infusion of reality.  If the exponents of "Radical Islam" are insane and predatory throughout the region, the policies of Western governments and corporations helped  bring a lot of this on.  Highest regards to some of the apologists for our power projections throughout the last several decades, but the fact is we did not go to war over Rwanda, an example of our restraint commonly cited, mostly because there was not enough potential economic profit in an adventure like that to convince our senior policymakers to take their chances and risk paying the price.  Bill Clinton  might have preferred to have intervened retroactively, but at the time the rewards simply did not approach the political risks.

 If we can stop repeating the mistakes of the past, and confront out true motives, perhaps it will not prove necessary to take our beatings in one unproductive and depleting war after another. Or put our constitutional rights in danger by attempting to suppress dissent.  For more, attend our discussion at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida on Friday, February 27.  We will be taking names.

Cheers, always,

Burton Hersh


  1. "If we can stop repeating the mistakes of the past..." Enter Jeb "I'm my own man" Bush and his resurrection of disgraced policy wonks from his brother's admin. They don't want to stop "repeating the mistakes" because they don't consider them mistakes. They are orchestrated moves to make money and increase their power.

  2. Yes! Brings to my mind an excellent interview about ISIS and the Ukraine with U. Chicago Poli Sci Prof John Mearshimer on the Chicago Public Radio show Worldview.


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