California Forum

The dark side of American exceptionalism

Nikki Haley, the new U.N. Ambassador, has told the 192 other countries in the organization that it’s her way or the highway.
Nikki Haley, the new U.N. Ambassador, has told the 192 other countries in the organization that it’s her way or the highway. The Associated Press

There has been a certain new muscularity coursing through the political veins of the new administration, an ominous willingness to rattle the international rockets in the service of what is being called “American exceptionalism.”

The concept of American exceptionalism was first enunciated by the French author and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, a notion that the U.S. is inherently different from other nations, built on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, democracy and laissez-faire economics and, although de Tocqueville didn’t say it, a compulsion to take those characteristics to overseas nations.

In its most beneficial form, that philosophy resulted in the Marshall Plan, which saved Europe from calamity following World War II, and has sent generations of young American missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers overseas to live in villages and build better lives for the poor.

But there is another, more ominous side to American exceptionalism, and it is now playing out in Washington, D.C. It is the urge to take American values overseas at the barrel of a gun.

In 1898, then-President William McKinley said he got down on his knees in the White House to pray over the decision to occupy the Philippine Islands, recently wrested from the Spanish. And, at the end of his conversation with his maker, he said there was nothing to it “but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ died.”

That the Philippines had been 90 percent Christian for 400 years before McKinley’s epiphany seemed to have slipped by him. But before the uplifting and civilizing and Christianizing of what he called “our little brown brothers” could begin, inconveniently they had to be pacified. Before it was all over, the uplifting and civilizing and Christianizing took the lives of 4,234 American servicemen and upwards of 200,000 Filipinos.

For those in the rest of the world, that divine fire has seized the bowels of American leaders too many times – in Central America, for instance, where Ronald Reagan was willing to break the law to supply weapons to the Contra rebels in their effort to bring down a legitimate government in Nicaragua. It seized Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, when the Central Intelligence Agency fomented a coup that brought down the only democracy in the Middle East, ousting Mohammad Mossadegh from power in Iran. It apparently seized George W. Bush in 2003 when he started an illegal war based on lies that ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In the Philippines, the arrival of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1944 to drive the Japanese from the islands largely reversed the sour taste of the occupation and left Filipinos famously with an affection for jeeps and aviator sunglasses. But many more, including the current president, the murderous Rodrigo Duterte, remember another American occupation and as one of his first orders of business threatened to oust U.S. forces from his country.

In Iran, the memory of the Mossadegh coup has resulted in bitterness against the U.S. that has lasted to this day and complicates attempts to foster a peace treaty. In Central America, millions have been made refugees or victims of right-wing repression because of U.S. heavy-handedness. In most of the Middle East, the shock and awe of Desert Storm II has destroyed long-standing social structures and resulted in the chaos that exists to this day over the entire region.

To much of the world, American exceptionalism thus defines a country that thinks it can get away with murder. To many, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their bunch belong not in graceful retirement but in The Hague, standing trial for war crimes in the World Court.

Memories are short. Nikki Haley, the new U.N. ambassador, has told the 192 other countries in the organization that it’s her way or the highway. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, thinks it’s time to liberate Iran. Steve Bannon is threatening war in the South China Sea. American exceptionalism is on the march.

John Berthelsen recently retired as editor of the Hong Kong-based Asia Sentinel, a regional news agency covering 23 countries across Asia. He now lives in Sacramento and can be contacted at