The concept of Manifest Destiny describes the 19th century conviction that God intended the continent of North America to be under the control of Christian, European Americans. The ideology of Manifest Destiny was the backbone of U.S. government efforts to colonize land inhabited by indigenous people in North America and expand the United States into Mexican territory.
Believers in Manifest Destiny asserted that U.S. rulers were predestined to spread their proclaimed superior values near and far. Propaganda, armed interventions, occupations, and terror were used in various insidious combinations. Indigenous people whose country we reside in can best attest to the results of Manifest Destiny policy, as they survived centuries of unspeakable injustices and lost millions, but courageously, have survived.
Ulysses S. Grant, that era’s most prominent military man, and himself a participant in the Mexican-American War, wrote in his memoirs, “I do not think there ever was a more wicked war than that waged by the United States in Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign.”
Although the shameful concept of Manifest Destiny should be confined to history books, it has reared its ugly head, as reflected in our government’s 21st century mission to reshape the Middle East. Of course, the psychology of Manifest Destiny – the projection of Anglo-Saxon supremacy – never really went away, it has always been used to justify America’s expansionist adventures. Losing the Vietnam War drove it toward covert action, i.e., U.S. attempts in the 1980’s to undo the Nicaraguan revolution and support for death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala. But U.S. foreign policy has consistently been based on an arrogant and racist view that “America knows best.”
For most Americans, the myth of U.S. cultural, religious, political, and social superiority has been so strongly reinforced over the years that it is taken a given, it is assumed. In the language of political science, this is called “reification,” when myths become accepted as reality. Public debate is often vacuous, because we are unable to question 1) whether or not the U.S. system of governance is desired by non-Americans, or 2) whether or not the “one size fits all” U.S. model will offer people in other lands true solutions. Without such debate, the reification process becomes frightening: If it is a given that our system and values are superior, it follows that remaking others in our image will always be the worthy “end.” Any means can be used to reach the agreed-upon (but unquestioned) worthy end.
This is why the U.S. invaded and devastated Iraq, and why our leaders and a majority of Americans can ignore 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties. If it is a given that a Western-style, capitalist Iraq is the proper end, then the means by which that is achieved can be illegal, ruthless, bloody, inhumane, or whatever. The means are open-ended. We see that glazed, slightly out-of-reality look constantly in this administration’s eyes as they talk about “democracy” in Iraq. Their fixed eyes look up towards the ends, but they are never cast seriously downward to look over and evaluate the terrible means by which they are trying to reach those ends.
Of course, this “remaking Iraq” project isn’t genuinely guided by the true lofty goal of implementing democracy. Instead, its focus is synchronizing Middle Eastern social and cultural values with Western capitalist values, because that will better facilitate a global world order that revolves around the U.S. economic interests of elites.
We all recall and recoil when we remember the days shortly after the invading troops reached Baghdad, when widespread looting destroyed Iraq’s museums and libraries. The U.S. troops stood idly by as Iraq’s cultural history was being erased. There are Iraqis who now say that this was deliberate, an attempt to erase the records of Iraq’s cultural and historical achievements, to wipe the slate clean, so that Western values could be more easily imposed.
Hundreds of Iraqi youth recently came out into the streets to protest a new government order that makes Saturday an official holiday in Iraq, officially aligning Iraq’s weekend with the Western weekend. The holy day for Muslims is Friday, and most Muslim countries take off Thursday and Friday or just Friday. At Baghdad’s University of Mustansariyah, a statement read, “We declare a general strike in the University of Mustansariyah to reject this decision and any decision aimed at depriving Iraqis of their identity.”
Since the invasion, there have been scores of such changes. The CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) under L. Paul Bremer, and the interim government that followed, both gutted and reworked Iraqi legislation in many areas. The CPA’s meddling with Iraq law violates the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, governing the treatment of the inhabitants of militarily occupied territories. Occupiers are prohibited from making major alterations to the character of the occupied society.
The press hasn’t covered the extent of the many changes. We only hear about them occasionally, as in this (2/27/05) Associated Press article that pokes fun at the protesters, portraying the Iraq students as silly for not wanting Saturday off. This patronizing and condescending tone is prevalent throughout U.S. reporting on Iraq society. The Western press resurrects and reinforces the colonialist idea that dark-skinned people in foreign lands are unable to do anything right. Their customs, religion, and culture are not properly “modern” or advanced enough, like ours, and, by God, they have to get with the program!
But many Muslims in the Middle East don’t want to get with “the program” because they have been subject to this colonial program before. Like indigenous people, who also reject attempts to assimilate them and dismantle their identity, Muslims in the Middle East don’t want to be shoved on to reservations either, left to watch the rich cities of their countries gleam and hum with U.S. oil money. Fast food joints on every corner, hotel chains, and big box stores offering lousy wages and products may be the American dream, but they are many a Muslim’s nightmare.
On February 25, a Qatar-hosted conference called for disseminating the culture of peaceful resistance to aggressive policies adopted by world powers towards Muslim countries. It was attended by a cohort of senior Muslim scientists, intellectuals, and dignitaries. Dr. Abdael Rahman al-Nuaimi, the chairman of the Arab Center for Studies and Research, said that Muslims are facing fierce campaigns from world parties attempting to impose their hegemony over Muslim people and destroy their social systems. He told the opening session of the three-day conference that the goal of such campaigns is to tarnish the image of Islam and mock Islamic values. “In response to such aggressive campaigns, the conference calls for the adoption of all peaceful means as well as the economic, media, and legal tools, to stand up to these aggressions.”
There were scant, if any, reports of this conference in the Western press. Why? Because it calls into question the “end” of making other people adapt to the assumed perfect U.S. model of governance, and it speaks to the failed psychology of Manifest Destiny that still guides U.S. thinking – that the U.S. government has a right to spread its values by any means. We cannot hear news that Muslim people en masse reject and plan to resist Western values, which are part and parcel of a specific economic system. That reality (gosh, they don’t want to be like us?) uncomfortably clashes with the reified language of Manifest Destiny, which U.S. leaders again spit forth, to convince citizens that their self-serving violent Middle East policies are worthy.
Kristina Gronquist is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She specializes in foreign policy analysis and holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota.