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Whose Century Was That?

The central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil—but there are problems with this triumphal storyline.

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 1:17 PM EDT

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 United States—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 United States 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 U.S. government breaking a solemn commitment, while baldly insisting otherwise. By converting Cuba into a protectorate, the United States 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 like 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 United States played in afflicting humankind with this scourge.

The United States invented the bomb. The United States—alone among members of the nuclear club—actually employed it as a weapon of war. The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 United States 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 U.S. embassy in Tehran, detained several dozen U.S. diplomats and military officers, and subjected the administration of Jimmy Carter to a 444-day-long lesson in abject humiliation.

For most Iranians, the story of U.S.-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 U.S. embassy in Tehran was not entirely without cause.

Afghanistan. President Obama has wasted little time in making the Afghanistan War his own. Like his predecessor he vows to defeat the Taliban. Also like his predecessor he has yet to confront the role played by the United States 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. U.S. 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 U.S. forces today bogged down in a seemingly endless war.

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Act of Contrition

Had the United States 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 United States, 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 U.S.-Cuban relations for so long. President 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 U.S. interventionism has wrought.

The United States should do these things without any expectations of reciprocity. Regardless of what U.S. 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 United States participated fully in the barbarism, folly, and tragedy that defines 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.

Copyright 2009 Andrew J. Bacevich

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