FAREWELL, THE AMERICAN CENTURY
By Andrew J Bacevich

Asia Times
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/KD3 0Ak02.html
April 29 2009
Hong Kong

In a recent column, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote, "What
Henry Luce called 'the American Century' is over." Cohen is right. All
that remains is to drive a stake through the heart of Luce's pernicious
creation, lest it come back to life. This promises to take some doing.

When the Time-Life publisher coined his famous phrase, his intent was
to prod his fellow citizens into action. Appearing in the February
7, 1941, issue of Life, his essay, "The American Century", hit the
newsstands at a moment when the world was in the throes of a terrible
crisis. A war in Europe had gone disastrously awry. A second almost
equally dangerous conflict was unfolding in the Far East. Aggressors
were on the march.

With the fate of democracy in the balance, Americans diddled. Luce
urged them to get off the dime. More than that, he summoned them
to "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most
powerful and vital nation in the world ... to exert upon the world
the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit
and by such means as we see fit."

Read today, Luce's essay, with its strange mix of chauvinism,
religiosity, and bombast ("We must now undertake to be the Good
Samaritan to the entire world"), does not stand up well. Yet the
phrase "American Century" stuck and has enjoyed a remarkable run. It
stands in relation to the contemporary era much as "Victorian Age"
does to the 19th century. In one pithy phrase, it captures (or at
least seems to capture) the essence of some defining truth: America
as alpha and omega, source of salvation and sustenance, vanguard of
history, guiding spirit and inspiration for all humankind.

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century
has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States
(above all the US military) made that triumph possible. When, having
been given a final nudge on December 7, 1941, Americans finally
accepted their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive
diabolical totalitarianisms. In doing so, the US not only preserved
the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to
look like.

Thank you, comrades So goes the preferred narrative of the American
Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

The problems with this account are two-fold. First, it claims for
the US excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores, or trivializes
matters at odds with the triumphal story-line.

The net effect is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever
their value in prior decades, have long since outlived their
usefulness. In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory
account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts
to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself
at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past
that never even approximated reality and today has become downright
malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the
American Century over, the American people - and especially the
American political class - still remain in its thrall.

Constructing a past usable to the present requires a willingness to
include much that the American Century leaves out.

For example, to the extent that the demolition of totalitarianism
deserves to be seen as a prominent theme of contemporary history (and
it does), the primary credit for that achievement surely belongs
to the Soviet Union. When it came to defeating the Third Reich,
the Soviets bore by far the preponderant burden, sustaining 65%
of all Allied deaths in World War II.

By comparison, the US suffered 2% of those losses, for which any
American whose father or grandfather served in and survived that war
should be saying: "Thank you, Comrade Stalin".

For the US to claim credit for destroying the Wehrmacht is the
equivalent of Toyota claiming credit for inventing the automobile. We
entered the game late, then shrewdly scooped up more than our fair
share of the winnings. The true "Greatest Generation" is the one that
willingly expended millions of their fellow Russians while killing
millions of German soldiers.

Hard on the heels of World War II came the Cold War, during which
erstwhile allies became rivals. Once again, after a decades-long
struggle, the US came out on top.

Yet in determining that outcome, the brilliance of American statesmen
was far less important than the ineptitude of those who presided over
the Kremlin. Ham-handed Soviet leaders so mismanaged their empire that
it eventually imploded, permanently discrediting Marxism-Leninism as
a plausible alternative to liberal democratic capitalism. The Soviet
dragon managed to slay itself. So thank you, Comrades Malenkov,
Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev.

Screwing the pooch What flag-wavers tend to leave out of their account
of the American Century is not only the contributions of others, but
the various missteps perpetrated by the US - missteps, it should be
noted, that spawned many of the problems bedeviling us today.

The instances of folly and criminality bearing the label
"made-in-Washington" may not rank up there with the Armenian genocide,
the Bolshevik Revolution, the appeasement of Adolf Hitler, or the
Holocaust, but they sure don't qualify as small change. To give them
their due is necessarily to render the standard account of the American
Century untenable.

Here are several examples, each one familiar, even if its implications
for the problems we face today are studiously ignored:

Cuba: In 1898, the US went to war with Spain for the proclaimed purpose
of liberating the so-called Pearl of the Antilles. When that brief war
ended, Washington reneged on its promise. If there actually has been
an American Century, it begins here, with the US government breaking
a solemn commitment while baldly insisting otherwise.

By converting Cuba into a protectorate, the US set in motion a long
train of events leading eventually to the rise of Fidel Castro,
the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, the Cuban Missile Crisis and
even today's Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The line connecting these
various developments may not be a straight one, given the many twists
and turns along the way, but the dots do connect.

The bomb: Nuclear weapons imperil our existence. Used on a large
scale, they could destroy civilization itself. Even now, the prospect
of a lesser power such as North Korea or Iran acquiring nukes sends
jitters around the world. American presidents - Barack Obama is only
the latest in a long line - declare the abolition of these weapons
to be an imperative. What they are less inclined to acknowledge is
the role the US played in afflicting humankind with this scourge.

The US invented the bomb: The US - alone among members of the nuclear
club - actually employed it as a weapon of war. The US led the way
in defining nuclear-strike capacity as the benchmark of power in
the postwar world, leaving other powers like the Soviet Union,
Great Britain, France and China scrambling to catch up. Today,
the US still maintains an enormous nuclear arsenal at the ready and
adamantly refuses to commit itself to a no-first-use policy, even as
it professes its horror at the prospect of some other nation doing
as the US itself has done.

Iran. Extending his hand to Tehran, President Obama has invited those
who govern the Islamic republic to "unclench their fists". Yet to a
considerable degree, those clenched fists are of our own making. For
most Americans, the discovery of Iran dates from the time of the
notorious hostage crisis of 1979-1981 when Iranian students occupied
the US embassy in Tehran, detained several dozen US diplomats and
military officers, and subjected the administration of Jimmy Carter
to a 444-day lesson in abject humiliation.

For most Iranians, the story of US-Iranian relations begins somewhat
earlier. It starts in 1953, when CIA agents collaborated with their
British counterparts to overthrow the democratically elected government
of Mohammed Mossadegh and return the Shah of Iran to his throne. The
plot succeeded. The shah regained power. The Americans got oil,
along with a lucrative market for exporting arms. The people of Iran
pretty much got screwed. Freedom and democracy did not prosper. The
antagonism that expressed itself in November 1979 with the takeover
of the US embassy in Tehran was not entirely without cause.

Afghanistan: Obama has wasted little time in making the Afghanistan
War his own. Like his predecessor, George W Bush, he vows to defeat
the Taliban. Also like his predecessor, he has yet to confront
the role played by the US in creating the Taliban in the first
place. Washington once took pride in the success it enjoyed funneling
arms and assistance to fundamentalist Afghans waging jihad against
foreign occupiers. During the administrations of Jimmy Carter and
Ronald Reagan, this was considered to represent the very acme of
clever statecraft. US support for the Afghan mujahideen caused the
Soviets fits. Yet it also fed a cancer that, in time, exacted a most
grievous toll on Americans themselves - and has US forces today bogged
down in a seemingly endless war.

Act of contrition Had the US acted otherwise, would Cuba have evolved
into a stable and prosperous democracy, a beacon of hope for the rest
of Latin America? Would the world have avoided the blight of nuclear
weapons? Would Iran today be an ally of the US, a beacon of liberalism
in the Islamic world, rather than a charter member of the "axis of
evil"? Would Afghanistan be a quiet, pastoral land at peace with its
neighbors? No one, of course, can say what might have been. All we
know for sure is that policies concocted in Washington by reputedly
savvy statesmen now look exceedingly ill-advised.

What are we to make of these blunders? The temptation may be to avert
our gaze, thereby preserving the reassuring tale of the American
Century. We should avoid that temptation and take the opposite
course, acknowledging openly, freely, and unabashedly where we have
gone wrong. We should carve such acknowledgments into the face of a
new monument smack in the middle of the Mall in Washington: We blew
it. We screwed the pooch. We caught a case of the stupids. We got
it ass-backwards.

Only through the exercise of candor might we avoid replicating such
mistakes.

Indeed, we ought to apologize. When it comes to avoiding the repetition
of sin, nothing works like abject contrition. We should, therefore,
tell the people of Cuba that we are sorry for having made such a hash
of US-Cuban relations for so long. Obama should speak on our behalf
in asking the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for forgiveness. He
should express our deep collective regret to Iranians and Afghans
for what past US interventionism has wrought.

The US should do these things without any expectations of
reciprocity. Regardless of what US officials may say or do, Castro
won't fess up to having made his own share of mistakes. The Japanese
won't liken Hiroshima to Pearl Harbor and call it a wash. Iran's
mullahs and Afghanistan's jihadists won't be offering to a chastened
Washington to let bygones be bygones.

No, we apologize to them, but for our own good - to free ourselves from
the accumulated conceits of the American Century and to acknowledge
that the US participated fully in the barbarism, folly and tragedy that
define our time. For those sins, we must hold ourselves accountable.

To solve our problems requires that we see ourselves as we really
are. And that requires shedding, once and for all, the illusions
embodied in the American Century.

Andrew J Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations
at Boston University. His most recent book, The Limits of Power:
The End of American Exceptionalism, is just out in paperback.