American Exceptionalism and the Myth of Abandoned Victory

Former CENTCOM commander David Petraeus

by Siamak Tundra Naficy

A commonly held view, popular both in the United States and abroad, is that for the past 70 odd years, the U.S.—guided by its principles and values—has used its military force and economic strength to craft and lead a security and economic order that has benefited the entire world. Because the U.S. is liberal, it is assumed that its ordering too, has been liberal. Such a view ignores the contradictions of any “liberal order,” but more importantly it sidesteps the manner such “ordering” often requires. In this way, it tends to ignore histories of coercion, violence, and compromise with illiberal forces, as well as the resistance, defiance, and antagonisms such policies foster.

Any narrative of U.S. power post-1945 must acknowledge that many alternatives were worse. Still, any narrative that does not explicitly recognize the flawed and sometimes dark bargains of “ordering” is incomplete. Debates tend to polarize, but it shouldn’t have to be a false choice between a grand strategy that includes endless wars and unmanageable debt, or else complete isolation and abandonment. Any Manichaean, binary, and absolutist sense of the world works to hinder and constrain policies necessary to adopt, adapt, and shift to a changing environment. It fundamentally makes it more difficult to re-consider U.S. grand strategy in a manner that could facilitate a balancing of its commitments and power.

Yet today, among both Republicans and Democrats there still exists a bipartisan band of minds who, with liberal order nostalgia, call for and scramble towards something like perpetual U.S. military (mis)adventures—endless wars—and when these inevitably disappoint, their conclusion invariably is that there just was not enough military action.

It would of course be an error to believe that the world cannot offer resistance to U.S. interests, imagination, and empire. Perhaps the greatest counter-evidence against U.S. ideas of potency and strength is effective defiance from the third or fourth world. But it’s important to register that when resistance, stalemates, and other counter-evidence to the American exceptionalism story do occur, there is a penchant for sidestepping them through swings in U.S. political ideology and efforts that find new ways to re-craft the story of being exceptional, dominant, and triumphant. These new narratives of dominance and exceptionalism in turn are significant in how they shape the character and nature of American culture, discourse, and foreign policy.

Political and cultural upheavals at home, from McCarthyism and “the Red Scare” of the 1950’s to the “Summer of Love” and the idealism of the counterculture of the 1960’s, were shaped in part by the deadlocks and failures in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. What happened in Korea didn’t just stay in Korea, just as what happened in Vietnam didn’t just stay in Vietnam. But, it took little time for the story of American dominance and exceptionalism to resurge. When it did, it do so through a narrative that shied away from enemy action and will, and instead locked onto one of U.S. abandonment—an American ambivalence towards more violence that would have surely ensured victory. In this way, it allowed for a renewal of the faith in militarism in American politics and society.

American identity itself has long demonstrated a commitment in diverse ways to notions of dominance, exceptionalism, strength, and a certain manifest destiny, especially over non-European others. Imperial and colonial wars in the non-European world have generally helped mark societies and global identities in categories created by the very histories and styles of such warfare: white man vs. native (indigenous), civilized vs. savage, Western vs. oriental, modern vs. backward, moderate vs. radical, insurgent vs. counter-insurgent. But, simultaneously, American identity demonstrates an almost codependent fixation with the other, with whom its own ideas of superiority are necessarily linked. For example, the rise of Japanese and Chinese capacity to compete against the U.S. economically does not just provide things to critique (“economic Pearl Harbor“). Instead, because of the threats to narratives of exceptionalism such energies provoke, they in turn animate renewed efforts at dominance.

U.S. politics—from the narrative of the unelected leader of the “liberal international order” of the Cold War that justified U.S. intervention in Vietnam to the unabashed narrative of the leader of “the new world order” of the neoconservatives that justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq—showcase how, despite the swings in stated ideology, the belief in American exceptionalism and dominance is never really relinquished. The shift from one to the other is made possible through reimagining the reasons for failure in the Vietnam War. Again, it took little time for the story of American dominance and exceptionalism to return, and when it did, it did do so by reframing the outcome to blame the U.S. failure on a lack of political will back at home.

As a cultural index, we can look to the films that came out during the early 1970s that commented either directly or indirectly about the Vietnam War—The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now—and contrast them with later films like Rambo, Uncommon Valor, and Missing in Action in the early 1980’s and the election of Ronald Reagan as president. The shift in the focus of the films, especially with regard to allocating blame for the loss in Vietnam and the idea of soldiers as victims (especially MIAs/POWs) of the “politicians back home who didn’t want it enough” fuels a resurgence of triumphant American militarism, power, and exceptionalism. The cycle of presumptive dominance and exceptionalism will inevitably lead to conflict, which leads to resistance. When resistance leads to setbacks and stalemates, this causes redoubled efforts for dominance and exceptionalism, which has the corrosive effect of leading to yet more conflict.

Fast forward to a recent piece, “The U.S. Abandoned Iraq. Don’t Make the Same Mistake in Afghanistan,” published in the Wall Street Journal, in which retired U.S. Army General (and former commander of CENTCOM and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan) David Petraeus, along with New American Security senior fellow Vance Serchuk, remind us that the errors of the “ordering” ideology are alive and still unwell. For instead of coming to terms with the historic gaffe of the invasion of Iraq, the two zealously reimagine history as one of premature U.S. abandonment. In this way, they still pursue to peddle the idea of a worldwide problem whose solution is always more foreign U.S. military bases.

The first error here is that they ignore or forget to consider the political will of host populations. In fact, it was in 2011—some eight years ago—that the U.S. signed a Status of Forces Agreement committing to the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq. This came only after Washington asked to maintain its Iraqi bases and Baghdad denied that request. Certainly, while politics in Iraq are complex, the facts are that most Iraqi power brokers either a) wanted a full U.S. withdrawal, or else b) demanded that foreign forces left behind must be held accountable before Iraqi courts. (Which is another way of asking those forces to leave.)

Their second error is the mistaken or deliberate misreading of the history of the Iraq War. The Iraqi will didn’t allow for a large military presence like, say, in South Korea, but instead the possibility of a residual, counter-terrorism force. But given that a large military force was unable to pacify the sectarian tensions in a post-invasion Iraq, it is not obvious that a smaller one could have done much better. Instead, there is the myopic fixation and fetishization of the war being won or lost based on U.S. willpower. In this way, such narratives undersell the ability of indigenous populations to resist and fight back, but instead focus solely on American power.

The abandonment myth sidesteps this unfortunate reality entirely, and instead, at best, assumes a synchronization of shared interests with the U.S. and everyone else—or at worst, seeks to commodify the values of others in ways that serve U.S. interests. This is something that not only showcases the arrogant and clumsily misguided notions of a colonial attitude, it reductively imagines others as props in a drama all about American triumph. Just consider Max Boot’s proclamation in 2001, that “Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul.”

The blunder of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq tore down the existing geopolitical order in the region. Power gravitates toward vacuum. The brutalities and chaos of the past sixteen years are on the main due to geopolitical forces seeking to find a new balance of power.

More than 4,500 Americans were killed in the Iraq War. Suicide rates among veterans are alarming. Let us also not forget that at least 500,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war. Hundreds of thousands were maimed. Millions were left homeless. Iraq was left a country brutalized, traumatized, and ripe for the rise of the Islamic State.

We need be careful, diligent, and conscientious about the record of U.S. militarism. It is only in the interest of avoiding such historical blunders in the future—both for the sake of American blood and treasure, but also for non-Americans who may find themselves as props—that we need be vigilant against counterfactual historical fantasy.

For as long as they push and spin unlikely tales of how just a little more occupation and a little more violence would have ensured victory, they continue to con themselves and their country into more of the same.

Siamak Tundra Naficy is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s department of Defense Analysis. An anthropologist (PhD at UCLA, 2010) with a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach to social, biological, psychological, and cultural issues, his interests range from the anthropological approach to conflict theory to sacred values, cognitive science, and animal behavior. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the Naval Postgraduate School.

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  1. @ “Debates tend to polarize, but it shouldn’t have to be a false choice between a grand strategy that includes endless wars and unmanageable debt, or else complete isolation and abandonment.”

    Accepting the limitations of international law governing commencement of warfare, which are part of our nation’s laws via the Constitution’s Treaty Clause, would be a good start toward finding a middle ground. It is amazing to me that in our last several wars of aggression, not a single U.S. general or flag officer has refused the unlawful orders to participate in those illegal wars. I do not believe this was because of ignorance of the law; the execution of high German and Japanese officials for participating in wars of aggression are simply too well known to have escaped their notice.

    The most likely explanation is my opinion is unbridled careerism that places career advancement above the duty to disobey unlawful orders. Which is certainly not what I expect from the generals and admirals, particularly when the consequences are massive casualties in the countries we unlawfully invade, not to mention less heavy casualties among our own military units.

  2. This article has the merit to include the U.S. as one of the main factors of destabilization in the world today. Looking back to before the twentieth century, the British Empire showed us the pattern about this kind ‘global’ role. It’s not that the world chooses that ‘order’. We can say that the ‘natural’ state of humans in this planet is one of instable coexistence. The history of all the past empires, the Babilonic, Sumeric, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Ottoman, Spanish, Portuguese, etc has been one of domination by force, sometimes brutal force. Always behind, there is the conviction that the order created is beneficial for all. ‘Pax Romana’ is an example. The ‘discovery’ of America is another. U.S. with its ‘Pax Americana’ is no exemption. In fact, the U.S. didn’t have appropriate higher class history for global domination. U.S. was reluctant to asume a dominant role in WWI and WWII. It was only after hesitation that U.S. after WWII, while itself unscathed, realizes that it was surrounded by a world flattened and turned piles of rubble and decided to occupied the emptiness becoming the dominant force by default. It’s important to underline this, because the U.S. by this experience developed only progressively its own imperial consciousness and the envy of power that comes with it.

    As with any imperial design, it’s clear that finally the U.S. enjoyed the usufruct of its unchallenged presence around the world. Only, after 70 years, the world is not rubble any more and powerful nations are thriving today. U.S. has still insisted in exercising power to ‘protect’ the salutary order created around its own now established power, not directly confronting the biggest nations already there but the still weaker ones such as Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.

    From this perspective we can say that President Obama was clearly incited to try to rearrange the U.S. power in a better global balance, Cuba and the Middle East come to mind. President Trump however is the climax of the classical ‘imperial design’. The MAGA mantra says it all. Like the British Empire dissolution brought chaos in former colonies, India, Pakistan are real examples, the U.S. withdrawal from the now well defined ‘eternal’ wars, is creating its own chaos… and perhaps shifting to new types of war of conquest: commercial wars, technological wars… By association we can say that the Brexit and the MAGA are strong remains of dreamed ‘greatness’, or exceptionalism in peril.

  3. The institutions formed under U.S. leadership at the close of WWII provided the framework for the international order that emerged. Actions continue to appeal to the UN Charter, the Declaration of Universal Human Rights and other founding documents where the U.S. and its values played a major role. No framework guarantees that people will abide by the principles of the framework.

    The framework for the international order had flaws from the outset among them the makeup of the Security Council and the deadly power of veto by the five permanent members. As a result of abuse of the veto power a tendency emerged to bypass the Security Council rather than to empower it. At the outset of the Korean war the Soviet Union’s absence allowed a decision to be reached that made it possible to stop the invasion from North Korea. Structural weakness in the Security Council resulted in a frozen conflict whose resolution after 70 years remains uncertain.

    After the collapse of the Soviet Union the decades long proxy war in Afghanistan was followed by U.S. failure to honor its responsibility after the Soviet withdrawal to provide support to the civil government that emerge. Having won over the Soviets the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan to spiral into a failed state that spawned Al Qaeda and the 9-11 attack. An effective Security Council could have acted to prevent the failed state and the birth of global Islamist terrorism. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is a consequence of a weak UN Security Council. The subsequent failed state that emerged in Syria whose refugee floods threatened the survival of the EU is an even starker example.

    The JCPOA marked an attempt at a step to correct the flaw. JCPOA is an act of the Security Council rather than an exercise of American power. As an act of the Security Council it may be a step forward to an era when America can indeed lead from behind as countries resolve their own disputes and differences with appeals to U.S. power where resolution attempts fail and the global order is threatened.

  4. @ “… it may be a step forward to an era when America can indeed lead from behind as countries resolve their own disputes and differences with appeals to U.S. power where resolution attempts fail and the global order is threatened.”

    In your vision, who is to decide where and when the global order is sufficiently threatened to justify military intervention? As the U.N. Charter is currently structured, permission of the Security Council is required to wage an offensive war.

  5. A commonly held view, popular both in the United States and abroad, is that for the past 70 odd years, the U.S.. . .has used its military force and economic strength to craft and lead a security and economic order that has benefited the entire world
    Really? That’s a commonly held view, that the country that brought the world the complete destruction of North Korea, the Vietnam war killing millions, the disastrous Iraq war and many other wars, plus the killer sanctions on many countries benefited the entire world?. . .I don’t think so.

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