The fundamental flaw of American exceptionalism is it assumes the United States can and should control events in the world. As a wealthy and powerful force in global relations, we certainly have obligations and contributions to make — particularly in areas of humanitarian aid, fighting diseases, and assisting developing countries meet technological challenges — but the limits of our power are much larger than generally assumed by foreign policy makers and the think tanks who harangue them.
If by now you are rolling your eyes and saying, “duh!” then you may underestimate how powerful is the myth of American power and leadership. Today American combat forces are leaving Iraq, save a contingent of 50,000 troops (thus begging the question, what constitutes “leaving”?), an unstable state in its wake, en route to Pakistan and Afghanistan in hopes of accomplishing a similarly dubious feat. Have we learned anything?
A new CNN poll suggests that at least the taste for direct intervention has soured for most Americans, who deplore the events in Iran, but do not see any constructive role for the U.S. beyond tut-tutting human rights abuses. The Iraq experience has taught us at least this lesson: democracy cannot be imposed from above.
Yet there are so many more lessons to be learned. Look at Honduras. As the NYTimes reports, American responses to the recent coup are highly strained by past support of brutal regimes in Latin America — not to mention more recent imperial games:
The United States has long had strong ties to the Honduras military and helps train Honduran military forces. Those close ties have put the Obama administration in a difficult position, opening it up to accusations that it may have turned a blind eye to the pending coup. Administration officials strongly deny the charges, and Mr. Obama’s quick response to the Honduran president’s removal has differed sharply from the actions of the Bush administration, which in 2002 offered a rapid, tacit endorsement of a short-lived coup against Mr. Chávez.
During a more formal meeting afterward, they discussed Mr. Zelaya’s plans for a referendum that would have laid the groundwork for an assembly to remake the Constitution, a senior administration official said.
But American officials did not believe that Mr. Zelaya’s plans for the referendum were in line with the Constitution, and were worried that it would further inflame tensions with the military and other political factions, administration officials said.
Even so, one administration official said that while the United States thought the referendum was a bad idea, it did not justify a coup.
“On the one instance, we’re talking about conducting a survey, a nonbinding survey; in the other instance, we’re talking about the forcible removal of a president from a country,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity during a teleconference call with reporters.
As the situation in Honduras worsened, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr., along with Hugo Llorens, the American ambassador to Honduras, spoke with Mr. Zelaya, military officials and opposition leaders, administration officials said. Then things reached a boil last Wednesday and Thursday, when Mr. Zelaya fired the leader of the armed forces and the Supreme Court followed up with a declaration that Mr. Zelaya’s planned referendum was illegal.
The White House and the State Department had Mr. Llorens “talk with the parties involved, to tell them, ‘You have to talk your way through this,’ ” a senior administration official said Monday. “ ‘You can’t do anything outside the bounds of your constitution.’ ”
The take-away lesson here is two-fold: Just as our past military support of anti-democratic forces compromises our credibility in the present, our continued relationships with these forces undermines our better intentions. We cannot control our surrogates; they have their own agendas, and they will use our support for their own ends, which have a tendency to undermine our national interests (however defined.) Surely Saddam Hussein taught us at least that.
Following the more violent failures of the BushAdmin, a more strategic and diplomatic school of American leadership has come forward, as Obama seeks to extend American influence through more cooperative regional relationships. In some respects, this is an improvement over the so-called “neo-con” school of ideological bullying, but it is not much more “realistic” or any less prone to violence against innocent lives caught between their local oppressive regimes and the global interests of more powerful countries.
What is often missing in national debates over foreign policy — on the one side, “soft power” liberalism; on the other, “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” — is any argument that in most cases we have no role to play whatsoever. That the internal affairs of other countries are simply beyond our control, most often not even our business, although quite often made worse by the covert machinations of our military, diplomatic and intelligence agencies. As both Iran and Honduras demonstrate, our past actions in the Middle East and Latin America have ongoing legacies; the chickens are still coming home to roost, as it were. As our predator drones wreak havoc in the lives of Pakistani villagers, shouldn’t we be wary of hatching any more nasty chickens?