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Thursday, December 21, 2006


In The Australian on 19 December 2006, Owen Harries, a noted Australian neoconservative, asks what the future of the Bush doctrine will be. “Does failure on its first outing spell an early grave for it? Does it mean that it will have been but a passing episode in the history of US foreign policy? As 9/11 recedes into history, and as George W. Bush’s period in office draws to an end, are we witnessing the end of what the Bush doctrine stood for?” [1]

Given the lies that were told that initiated the invasion of Iraq, the horrendous loss of life since (over half a million dead and rising daily), the anarchy that now exists in Iraq and through much of the Middle East, the squalor that the Iraqi people now have to endure, the squandering of billions of dollars of taxpayers money (predominately the American taxpayer), the thousands of dead and injured American soldiers, the continued threat of more war against other Middle East nations such as Iran, Syria and possibly even Saudi Arabia, it would be nice to think that the answer to Owen Harries questions would be a resounding ‘Yes!’

Unfortunately, according to Harries, it is unlikely to be. “Not necessarily”, Harries proclaims, “For the doctrine represents two enduring and fundamental features of the situation - one structural, the other cultural - that will not disappear when the Iraq venture ends: the global hegemony of the US and American exceptionalism.”

Fortunately for the rest of the world Harries is wrong. Time and again American hegemony has proved ultimately to have been an illusion and the concept of ‘American exceptionalism’ is nothing more than arrogant wishful thinking that exists only in the minds of neoconservatives who seem to think that the ‘American Way’ is the answer to all of the worlds woes based on the historical experience that America itself has evolved from. (We’ll come back to that ridiculous furphy in a moment.)

That’s not to say, of course, that American hegemony doesn’t exist; just that it is very much overrated particularly in the context that Harries assumes.

One often reads of the US as being the only ‘superpower’ left (after the demise of the USSR) but in reality other superpowers are still around; ones that the US would not want to tangle with such as Russia and China. If hegemony means influence, then, yes, the US has lots of it. There are many nations around the world that ‘benefit’ from American ‘influence’ – especially economically. But when it comes to military grunt most nations these days realise that the US is not all it’s cracked up to be and Iraq is a classic example.

While the US has had its successes militarily over very small nations (like Grenada, Panama, etc.), it has, despite its military might, been unable to prevail in many of the conflicts it has been involved in directly since WWII. Despite terrible losses on both sides, North Korea still exists. Despite supporting an invasion of a small Caribbean island on its doorstep, Fidel Castro’s Cuba still exists. Despite the deaths of over 50,000 American and allied soldiers and well over a million or two others dead, Vietnam is still a communist nation. And, regardless of what the neoconservatives would have the world believe, America did not actually defeat the USSR in the ‘Cold War’ – it was simply able to survive longer; the bottom line is: the US did not militarily prevail over the USSR and to suggest otherwise is purely delusional.

And now we have Iraq. In a nutshell it was the neoconservative’s faith in the illusion of US military hegemony combined with their belief in the myth of American exceptionalism that has been America’s downfall in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s ‘shock and awe’ turned out to be fizzer. America’s technical military know-how with laser-guided bombs and missiles fired from the most sophisticated aircraft has failed to subdue a people that simply do not want the Americans there and are living in an Iraq that is now far, far worse than it was when Saddam was in power.[2] The Americans are now in a situation where they cannot win unless they use overwhelming firepower across virtually the entire nation which would entail the deaths of extremely large numbers of innocent Iraqis as it did when the Americans tried (and failed) a similar stunt on a smaller scale at Fallujah.[3]

For all its military might the US has rarely been able to prevail against its enemies using its military might. America’s hegemony comes not from its military might, as the neoconservatives would like the world to think, or even as they would like to think themselves as demonstrated in the Project for the New American Century’s (PNAC) Statement of Principles[4], but from its ability to fork out huge amounts of money (or, alternatively, withhold huge amounts of money) in order to affect an outcome favourable to them.

In the present circumstances, it may well be that the Bush administration will, indeed, attempt a final fling at a military victory but if it does, it will be in the face of a backlash of very negative public opinion not just from the rest of the world but also from most of the American people who have now had about a gutful of this ridiculous war. And this will especially be so if such a final fling results in huge loss of life – Iraqis or Americans – and even more so still if all it ends up doing is inflaming an even greater insurgency.

As for the myth of American exceptionalism; this is based solely on neoconservative arrogance, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. It is the projection of an American sense of superiority arrived at by having undergone a transition in history that no other nation has, so they think, endured and one which they believe all other nations should aspire to. Rings a bell? The Romans? Napoleon? The Germans during the Nazi era?

Harries says:

“American exceptionalism, the strange term used to identify the profound belief widely held by Americans since their beginning as a nation that it is their historical - indeed their divinely ordained - destiny to be, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, "tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection", or in the words of president Woodrow Wilson, that Americans are divinely "chosen to show the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty". However condescending and presumptuous others may find this conviction, it is deeply held and as natural to Americans as apple pie. It will certainly survive the Iraq experience and the demise of the neo-conservatives, who are merely its latest vehicle, not its inventors.”

Contrary to what Harries asserts, while American exceptionalism may not have actually been invented by neoconservatives per se (the term was first coined by that hero of the neocons, Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831) it certainly has been brought to the forefront of neoconservative and US foreign policy as a direct result of neoconservative propaganda particularly since that other neoconservative hero, Seymour Martin Lipset, wrote his book about it, entitled ‘American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged-Sword’ in 1997.[5] Neoconservatism, most certainly in the modern context, has been the vehicle by which ‘American exceptionalism’ has been promoted and, certainly, one would hope that with the demise of neoconservative influence in US foreign policy in the wake of the fiasco that is Iraq, the ridiculous notion of ‘American exceptionalism’ will also be seen to expire.

American pre-eminence is now on the wane and it is on the wane as a direct result of the neoconservatives pushing what they believed was American hegemony beyond the bounds that the rest of the world, particularly the Islamic world, will accept. The notion of American exceptionalism sums up all that the Islamic world, and much of the rest of the world beside, believes are the real values of Americanism – arrogance and hypocrisy. Hopefully, when neoconservatism has run its course, the values that the rest of the world associate with them will pass on with them.

[1] Owen Harries, ‘Don’t think it’s over’, The Australian, 19 December 2006. Available online:,5942,20948142,00.html Accessed 21 December 2006.
[2] Anthony Arnove, ‘Iraq: More Hellish Than Under Saddam’,, 20 December 2006 Available online: Accessed 21 December 2006.
[3] RAI News 24, ‘Fallujah – The Hidden Massacre’,, 8 November 2005. Available online: Accessed 18 December 2006.
[4] ‘Statement of Principles’, Project for the New American Century, 3 June 1997. Available online: Accessed 21 December 2006.
[5] Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. (W. W. Norton and Co. 1997).


Anonymous said...

A very interesting essay.
I have been thinking about the idea of a staged withdrawal of Iraq by US forces.

I cannot recall any example in history where a modern army has been able to make a staged withdrawal while hostilities are still occurring.

Perhaps you or your readers might know of an example.

Happy Xmas to you and your readers.

Damian Lataan said...

G'day Terrence

I'll give your comment some thought over the Christmas period.

Meanwhile, many thanks for your support and may you too have a happy Xmas and New Year.