Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Toppling Dictators Can Be Dangerous, Even If You Are Exceptional

Jul 24, 2012

Toppling Dictators Can Be Dangerous, Even If You Are Exceptional


Billboard of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, 2006. Credit: Wikipedia

I can’t resist a brief comment on the debate about American exceptionalism that’s now the headline offering on History News Network. If you’re interested in the mythic dimension of American political life, exceptionalism is bound to be an important topic. Even if you just casually peruse the day’s news you are likely to meet it in one guise or another.

Today you can meet it in its purest form, with no guise at all, in Mitt Romney’s speech to the VFW:  “Our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known. ... Throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. ... Our influence is needed as much now as ever.”

Romney’s words are likely to find receptive ears across America, especially among those who hear the news of Syrian warplanes dropping bombs on Syrians in Aleppo, the nation’s largest city.  It’s getting mighty grim over there. It’s hard to resist the feeling that someone really ought to stop that slaughter, by any means necessary. It will be a nasty job, but if we don’t bring justice where there is now tyranny, who will?

That’s exactly what they’re starting to say in the White House, too, according to the New York Times. “We’re looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime,” as a Syria expert at a Washington think tank put it. But the Times thought it helpful to add that expert’s word of warning: “Like any controlled demolition, anything can go wrong.”

If you are wondering what might go wrong when American wields its power, the Washington Post offered one answer just a day after that Times story appeared, in a story headlined, “In Syria, U.S. Intelligence Gaps.” The United States, it seems, “is struggling to develop a clear understanding of opposition forces inside the country, according to U.S. officials who said that intelligence gaps have impeded efforts to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” U.S. spy agencies “are still largely confined to monitoring intercepted communications and observing the conflict from a distance, officials said.” 

“The lack of intelligence,” the WaPo explained, “has complicated the Obama administration’s ability to navigate a crisis that presents an opportunity to remove a longtime U.S. adversary but carries the risk of bolstering insurgents sympathetic to al-Qaeda or militant Islam.”

Complicated, indeed. Supposedly controlled demolitions often turn out to be a lot less controlled than the controllers expect, especially when they are relatively clueless about what’s really going on. As the man said, anything can go wrong -- no matter how exceptional the demolition crew may be. 

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