At some point, any fair-minded observer of US history will be forced to confront the reality that America’s position as the global hegemon was built, at least in part, on a foundation of cynical lies. From the Thornton Affair and the sinking of the Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Iraqi WMD, successive generations of American leaders have pulled off incredible feats of dishonesty to advance their foreign-policy agendas. And it is hard to deny the tremendous human costs of the American empire—especially those imposed on the peoples of the Global South.
Of course, the machinations of America’s empire-builders have rarely gone unchallenged. From Whig opposition to the Mexican-American War to the mass protests against George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, there is a long tradition of homegrown opposition to the country’s foreign entanglements and expansionist ambitions. Yet too often lately, anti-imperialism has become merely the mirror image of the worldview of the foreign-policy establishment. Much like their neoconservative or liberal-internationalist opponents, today’s anti-imperialists hold fast to American exceptionalism. Only, for the anti-imperialists, it’s an inverted exceptionalism that casts the United States as an irredeemable villain, a uniquely evil force upon the world stage. Meanwhile, America’s foes are treated as misunderstood and maligned victims of Western propaganda. In maintaining this Manichaean moral binary, the anti-imperialists inadvertently reaffirm the basis upon which neoconservatives and liberal internationalists seek to exercise imperial power.
To critique this inverted American exceptionalism, one needn’t assume American “good intentions” in every case. Nor should we meet with credulity the accusations leveled by American foreign-policy elites or their acolytes in the press against this or that regime. The masters of the American empire can lie, and they do. But what about the cases where the neocon accusations are, in fact, true? What if, in other words, the imperialists aren’t lying?