In a hostel in Central America a year or two ago, I found myself in conversation with a Nicaraguan employee. We chatted in broken Spanglish about the Iran-Contra Affair, a shameful incident for the Reagan administration in which illegal arms deals with Iran were used to fund anti-communist Nicaraguan guerrillas. “It was awful – what they did to your country” I said, trotting out my learned response for whenever anyone mentions American imperialism “absolutely unbelievable”. He looked at me quizzically: “Why do you talk of America,” he asked, “when we were the ones that slit each other’s throats?”
Anti-American sentiment is something I’ve grown up with. I learned about politics against the backdrop of the Iraq War, and George W. Bush was usually the political villain of the hour. Fast forward a decade or two and a family friend is standing in my kitchen denouncing the US of A as the unholy spawn of Katie Hopkins and a dementor. “How can America lecture the Middle East” they declare, twirling a finger “when they’re responsible for 95 per cent of the world’s problems?”
Are they though?
Obviously I’m not saying that America hasn’t done some pretty sinister stuff: propping up the Iranian shah, drone strikes in Yemen, McCarthyite witch-hunts and the big daddy of American imperialism, the Vietnam War. When Santa’s checking his lists, there’ll be plenty of US politicos down the years who’ve woken up to an empty stocking and uneaten cookies.
But in certain parts of the British Left, anti-American rhetoric has taken on almost pantomime proportions. How have IS managed to gain such widespread territory in Iraq and Syria? America did it. How did the Ukraine situation rapidly escalate into a Cold War-esque clash of ideologies? America did it. How was Steven Spielberg allowed to commission a fifth Indiana Jones movie? Ok, America really did do that.
The point is that blaming America for almost everything is a supreme cop out. It’s a convenient go-to for any progressive liberal: no one will accuse you of prejudice, you have an eternal trump card in the form of the Iraq War, and you look like you’re standing up for the little people by taking a shot at the big guy. None of these things make you right: quite often you’ve simply ignored and trivialised the immense complexity of regional geopolitics.
What is more, you may even be doing the work of tyrants and despots for them. How easy it is to convince your people that America and Israel are to blame for all their ills, when Western press and left-wing politicians are saying the same thing. Iran’s oppressive theocracy, the failing socialist regime in Venezuela, Mugabe’s Zimbabwean dictatorship; all distract from their totalitarianism by scapegoating American encroachment.
Journalist Nick Cohen addresses these concerns in his 2007 work ‘What’s Left?’. He points to leftist reactions post-9/11, arguing that many ignored the poisonous ideology of Al-Qaeda to emphasise American foreign policy. By doing so, he argues, they dismissed the attack as semi-understandable retribution for American crimes. I remember 9/11 vividly, and recognise elements of this thinking in my younger self.
If the world is to be dominated by a superpower that spends $600bn p.a. on its military, isn’t America the least-bad option? Indeed, given that the next three biggest military spenders are China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, we should probably be thanking our lucky stars and stripes. We in the UK even have that infamous ‘special relationship’ – to put that into perspective, China’s ‘special relationship’ is with North Korea.
Rarely has it been so fashionable to point the finger of blame squarely at Uncle Sam: Donald Trump is tearing up the American Right, IS is decimating areas of Iraq in a power vacuum partly of American creation, and American-made weaponry is wreaking havoc in Gaza and Yemen. Sometimes it is absolutely right to point that finger. At other times, it is merely easy.