The United States is a complex and varied country that contains many different points of view. It combines noble ideals with the ruthless pursuit of American interests. Many Americans believe in these ideals and put them into practice, but far too often US governments betray them. Many of the best criticisms of US failings come from Americans. There have been some serious critiques of current US policy from American scholars and journalists but, however cogent, these criticisms don’t seem to have a lot of influence on the administration and conservatives in the Congress. The US does not have a government in the sense that we do; it has a process that was designed for a very different country and not for a world power.

Congress and the courts limit what presidents can do in many ways, but as commander in chief the president has a lot of power, especially in the short term. And, of course, the Congress can be very warlike too.

Americans are patriotic and religious, which leads them to see the world in terms of good and evil, with the US on the side of God and their enemies led by Satan. Like other empires, they think they are exceptional, and that perhaps underlies some of the things they do. They do have an ability to identify their own errors and to correct them but not always and not always in time. Vietnam is a classic example of a mistake that was supported by public opinion — and then the public changed its mind. 

None of the following is meant to suggest that the US really is the Great Satan and that it is somehow more evil than everyone else but rather that it should be judged by the same standards that we apply to other countries. It is no better or worse than anyone else, but it is more powerful and important and therefore matters more. With that caveat clearly in mind, we must accept that the USA has a long history of aggression against its neighbours and others as well as a series of intelligence failures and poor political judgements. Donald Trump’s claim to make America great and put America first is nothing new. Think back to the era of the Hearst newspapers and Teddy Roosevelt for a time when Manifest Destiny led to foreign adventures as just one example.

In 1950 the US administration, media and Congress believed that China was a Soviet satellite and that it would not be allowed to intervene in the Korean War. This attitude led to President Harry Truman approving General Douglas MacArthur’s recommendation, endorsed by the Joint Chiefs, that UN forces should head for the Yalu. A number of warnings by China were ignored, and UN troops suffered the consequences. This failure was caused to some extent by poor intelligence but more by political blinkers. The US crusade against international communism also led them to first support the French in Vietnam and then to fight for the losing side in a civil war. In the process, the US ignored an agreement that Vietnam-wide elections should be held because the US believed, probably correctly, that their rooster would lose. There is no need to repeat here what happened after that.

The US has supported or indeed created a number of very nasty Latin American dictators and overthrown democratic governments that did not suit American commercial or strategic interests. While demanding that other countries not interfere in the affairs of their neighbours, the US has a long history of doing what the Russians are doing in Ukraine. For the most part, American administrations probably do understand what they are doing but choose to ignore the fact that they are creating and/or propping up brutal dictators with no interest in democracy. The overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala and Salvador Allende in Chile were classic examples of this. The attempt to use Contras to get rid of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua is one that failed. It is ironic that Americans are having hysterics over Russian interference in their elections as if they hadn’t been doing it to others for years, recently in Ukraine.

In the Middle East, support for the Shah in Iran ignored the fact that he was a dictator who showed little understanding of the growing opposition to his rule, which led to his overthrow and replacement by a strongly anti-American regime. The US supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan simply because they opposed the Soviet Union. Neither the Russians nor the Americans really understood what was going on and probably still don’t. The illegal invasion of Iraq was a not only a failure but also opened Pandora’s Box, which led to the present mess in Iraq and Syria. The claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction may have been an intelligence failure or just political unwillingness to accept that he might not. In any case, the belief that they would be welcomed and that Iraq would become a peaceful and democratic friend was a monumental failure of political intelligence and foresight. (The US has still not officially withdrawn its criticism of the UN now that the UN has been shown to have been right and the US wrong although Trump has said they were wrong to go in.) US actions in Syria show a traditional lack of understanding of the local situation. They have tolerated and indeed created many dictators just as bad as Assad so we must assume that the real US concern is that Assad is Russia’s son of a bitch and not America’s. Attempts to identify clear goodies and baddies in Syria just don’t work. In the light of history, can we be confident that the US is not leading us into another fine mess?

* Cavan Hogue was formerly Australian ambassador to USSR and Russia, and ambassador to Thailand and Mexico, and High Commissioner to Malaysia. This article was originally published at John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations 

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.