The Biggest Threat to Peace on Earth: Reflections on Empire, Evil, and American Exceptionalism

First appeared on ZNet on January 10, 2014. According to a global survey of 66,000 people conducted across 68 countries by the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research (WINMR) and Gallup International at the end of 2013, Earth’s people see the United States as the most significant threat to peace on the planet. The US was voted top threat by a wide margin, receiving 24% of the vote. Pakistan was a very distant second with 8%, followed by China (6%). Afghanistan, Iran, Israel and North Korea tied for fourth place at 4%.[1]

 “A Black Check in Their ‘McWorld’”

An International Business Times headline on the WINMR-Gallup poll seemed to question the validity and/or rationality of the finding. “In Gallup Poll,” the headline read, “Leading Threat to World Peace is….America?” In reality, however, the United States’ status as by and far away the leading threat to peace in the world’s eyes should be anything but surprising to any serious observer of US foreign policy and the international scene. The US, after all, accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. It maintains more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nations spread across every continent. The Obama administration deploys Special Operations forces in 75 to 100 countries (up from 60 at the end of the George W. Bush administration) and conducts regular lethal drone attacks against officially designated terrorists (and a much larger number of innocent civilians) in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and Africa. It maintains a massive global surveillance program dedicated to the de facto elimination of privacy on Earth – a program that has spied even on the personal cell phones of European heads of state, including Germany’s Angela Merkel. As Der Speigel, Germany’s leading newspaper noted in 1997: “Never before in modern history as a country dominated the earth as totally as the United States does today….America is now the Schwarzenegger of international politics: showing off muscles, obtrusive, intimidating….The Americans, in the absence of limits put to them by anybody or anything, act as if they own a kind of blank check in their ‘McWorld.”[2]

No Apology

This Schwarzenegger has gone off on a bit of a one-sided rampage in the current Millennium. The US since September 11, 2001 has killed, maimed, and displaced millions across the Muslim World as part of its Global War on [of] Terror (GWOT). The violence is always conducted in the names of peace, freedom, democracy, and security. An illustrative incident in the US war on/of terror occurred in the first week of May 2009. That’s when US air-strikes killed more 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by US explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported:

“In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to…the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi…’The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred…Everyone was crying…watching that shocking scene.’ Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including…many women and children.”[3]

The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many mass US aerial civilian killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the fall of 2001 – was to blame the deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about loss of innocent life, but the administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge US responsibility.[4] By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official for scaring New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people there of 9/11.[5]

The disparity was extraordinary: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians perished – stories that taken seriously by “mainstream” (corporate-imperial war and entertainment) media. The US subsequently conducted a dubious “investigation” of the Bola Boluk slaughter that slashed the civilian body count and blamed the Taliban for putting civilians in the way of US bombs.[6]

Sons and Daughters

Another shining example of the US commitment to peace and security is Fallujah, Iraq. In a foreign policy speech he gave on the eve of announcing his candidacy for the US presidency, Barack Obama had the audacity to say the following in support of his claim that US citizens supported “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah [emphasis added].”[7]

This was a spine-chilling selection of locales. Fallujah was the site for colossal US war atrocity – the crimes included the indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians, the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city – by the US military in April and November of 2004. The city was designated for destruction as an example of the awesome state terror promised to those who dared to resist US power.[8] By one account:

“The US launched two bursts of ferocious assault on the city, in April and November of 2004… [using] devastating firepower from a distance which minimizes US casualties. In April….military commanders claimed to have precisely targeted…insurgent forces, yet the local hospitals reported that many or most of the casualties were civilians, often women, children, and the elderly… [reflecting an] intention to kill civilians generally….In November … [YS] aerial assault destroyed the only hospital in insurgent territory to ensure that this time no one would be able to document civilian casualties. US forces then went through the city, virtually destroying it. Afterwards, Fallujah looked like the city of Grozny in Chechnya after Putin’s Russian troops had razed it to the ground.”[9]

US deployment of radioactive ordnance (depleted uranium) in Fallujah helped create a subsequent epidemic of infant mortality, birth defects, leukemia, and cancer there. [10]

Fallujah was jut one especially graphic episode in a broader arch-criminal invasion that led to the premature deaths of at least one million Iraqi civilians and left Iraq “a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt[11]). According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in December 2007, “Iraq has been killed….the American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.”[12]


“So You Stuff’ Em in Guantanamo”

Lawrence Wilkerson is a former combat officer and onetime chief of staff to George W. Bush’s Secretary of States Colin Powell. Speaking to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, he described a typical Special Forces operation during the occupation of Iraq: “You go in and you get some intelligence…and you say ‘Oh, this is really good actionable intelligence. Here’s ‘Operation Blue Thunder. Go do it.’ And they kill 27, 30, 40 people, whatever, and they capture seven or eight. Then you find out that the intelligence was bad and you killed a bunch of innocent people and you have a bunch of innocent people on your hands, so you stuff ‘em in Guantanamo. No one ever knows anything about that….you say, ‘chalk that one up to experience,’ and you go on to the next operation.”[13] Blank check, indeed.

An “Aerial Traffic Jam” Above a “One-Sided Slaughter” (Iraq, 1991)

All of this and much more terrible to mention from the current century of one-sided American war is consistent with the United States’ long record of savage imperial violence. That history stretches from the bloody extermination of the nation’s original inhabitants (the long Native American Holocaust of 1607-1890[14]) through the openly racist butchering of tens of thousands of Filipinos between 1899 and 1902 (when US soldiers engaged in the slaughter wrote home to friends and relatives about how they had come “to blow every nigger to nigger heaven” and had vowed to fight “until the niggers are killed off like Indians”[15]), the monumentally arch-criminal and unnecessary atom-bombing of Japan[16], the soul-numbing US “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s term for a US policy that liquidated 2 million Indochinese – regularly labeled “gooks” and other such racist names by US troops – between 1962 and 1975[17]), and the “Highway of Death,” when US forces massacred tens of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait on February 26th and 27th, 1991. Regarding this last atrocity, the Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac testified that:

“US planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. ‘It was like shooting fish in a barrel,’ said one US pilot…On the sixty miles of coastal highway, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun, says the Los Angeles Times of March 11, 1991… for 60 miles every vehicle was strafed or bombed, every windshield is shattered, every tank is burned, every truck is riddled with shell fragments. No survivors are known or likely….” ‘Even in Vietnam I didn’t see anything like this. It’s pathetic,’ said Major Bob Nugent, an Army intelligence officer…US pilots took whatever bombs happened to be close to the flight deck, from cluster bombs to 500 pound bombs…US forces continued to drop bombs on the convoys until all humans were killed. So many jets swarmed over the inland road that it created an aerial traffic jam, and combat air controllers feared midair collisions…The victims were not offering resistance…it was simply a one-sided massacre of tens of thousands of people who had no ability to fight back or defend themselves.”[18]

There are ways to kill other than direct physical violence, of course. Five years after the Highway of Death, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright told CBS that the death of half a million Iraqi children due to US-imposed economic sanctions was a “price…worth paying” for the advancement of US goals.[19]

Keeping the “Machine Set on Kill”

Anyone who thinks US imperial savagery came to some kind of a merciful halt with the ascendency of Barack Obama is living in a dream world. Obama may have been tasked with winding down the Washington’s failed ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the same job would have fallen to a President McCain), but he had drastically expanded the scale, intensity, and scope of the drone war and the presence of Special Forces troops around the world. Obama, as the courageous journalist Allan Nairn noted early on, has kept the giant US imperial “machine set on kill.”[20]

The tone was set from the start, with Obama signing off on two major drone strikes in Pakistan on his fourth day in office. The first strike “killed between seven and fifteen people, nearly all of them civilians.” The second one “struck the ‘wrong house’ and killed five to eight civilians,” including two children. Less than half a year later, another one of Obama’s “signature [drone] strikes” targeted a funeral and killed “scores of civilians – estimates ranged between eighteen and fifty-five.” By October of 2009, Scahill reports, “Obama had already authorized as many drone strikes in ten months as Bush had in his entire eight years in office.” A military source told Scahill about a standard Special Forces kill operation in the Age of Obama: “If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four [other] people in the building, then thirty-five people are going to die.”[21]

“The United States is Good”

Last week a broadcast journalist from Iran asked me if I thought the WINMR-Gallup poll would elicit any anti-imperial backlash on the part of US citizens. I had to say no for three reasons. First, I doubted very seriously that dominant US mass media would pay much attention to the survey given that the poll’s finding was radically inconsistent with that media’s longstanding habitual and reflexive treatment of the United States as force for peace and stability in the world (my expectation has been fulfilled: the survey has been pretty much of a non-story in US news and commentary). Second, similar global survey data has been (weakly) reported on past occasions with the little discernible impact on US opinion and policy, which remain coldly indifferent to the views of people on the wrong end of US power.

Third, even if the poll and what people think abroad held a more prominent place in US media and opinion, it seems unlikely that any more than a relatively small minority of US citizens are ready to accept the notion of the US as any kind of threat to world peace at all, much less the leading threat. Consider the reflections of former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer on the United States’ annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, its seizure of Puerto Rico, and its overthrow of elected governments in Nicaragua and Honduras during the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

“Why did Americans support policies that brought suffering to people in foreign lands? There are two reasons, so intertwined that they became one. The essential reason is that American control of faraway places came to be seen as vital to the material prosperity of the United States. This explanation, however, is wrapped inside another one: the deep-seated belief of most Americans that their country is a force for good in the world. Thus, by extension, even the destructive missions the United States embarks on to impose its authority are tolerable. Generations of American political and business leaders have recognized the power of the noble idea of American exceptionalism. When they intervene abroad for selfish or ignoble reasons, they always insist that in the end, their actions will benefit not only the United States but also the citizens of the country in which they are intervening-and, by extension, the causes of peace and justice in the world.”[22]


This problem of “American exceptionalism” – the doctrinal belief that US goals and behavior are inherently benevolent, well-intentioned, and good for the world – remains deeply entrenched more than a century later. It is a leading reason, along with the scale and conduct of US empire, that the world’s people are correct to identify the United States as leading threat to peace on Earth. Nothing is more dangerous – and evil (see below) – than a sole military Superpower that believes itself beyond moral reproach. Listen, in that regard, to the following malignant nationally narcissistic statements from US foreign policy elites of both of the dominant US political organizations (aptly identified as “two wings of the same bird of prey” by Upton Sinclair more than a century ago):

“A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair, and restrained. They trust us to be on side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”

– US President George H.W. Bush, 1992 [23]

“ The willingness to serve and sacrifice for the greater good is the ultimate tribute to your character and your efforts…The values you learned here….will be able to be spread …throughout the world and give other people the opportunity to live as you have lived, to fulfill your God-given capacities.”

– US President Bill Clinton, speaking to West Point graduates, 1993 [24]

“When I came into office, I was determined that our country would go into the 21st century still the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom. For democracy, and security, and prosperity.”

– US President Bill Clinton, 1996 [25]

“The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”

– US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, 1999 [26]


“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world… Today, our nation saw evil…Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared….. we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

– President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001 [27]


“We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good….America is the last, best hope of Earth…. America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom. The American moment has not passed…we will seize that moment, and begin the world anew. “

– US presidential candidate Barack Obama, April 23, 2007 [28]


“The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity.”

– US presidential candidate Barack Obama, August 2007 [29]

“Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

– US President Barack Obama, .Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009 [30]


“The Self Righteous Who Think they are Without Sin”

Reading through these statements and holding them up against the criminal, racist, and imperial reality of US foreign policy in this and previous centuries, I am reminded of the Christian psychotherapist and author M, Scott Peck’s study of human evil People of the Lie. By Peck’s reckoning:


“The evil in this world is committed by the…self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination…[their] most basic sin is pride – because all sins are reparable except the sin of believing one is without sin…Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. The project their own evil onto the world… Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie…they are the ‘people of the lie.’’[31]

That sounds to me like a reflection on the “American exceptionalist” rhetoric of US empire past and present. When combined with the record and reach of US military power, the parallels suggests that the people of the world are quite right to identify self-righteous America as the leading threat to peace on planet Earth.

Peck’s volume was, of course, about individuals, not power structures. For all I know, Barack Obama is a perfectly moral and caring individual in relation to his family and friends (same for George W. Bush). But that’s irrelevant when it comes to global affairs, where the role of a US president and his top foreign policy advisors and operatives is to advance the blood-soaked American Empire Project under the guise of benevolent intent and a national form of malignant narcissism that we call American exceptionalism – to be the ultimate “people of the lie” on the public and global stage. How appropriate then, that the US has retained its status as most dangerous nation in the world’s eyes after the passage from the more openly and clumsily imperialist Bush 43 to the more stealthily imperial and supposedly more peace-oriented Obama 44. The world, clearly, is no longer fooled by the great Obama re-branding of the “Schwarzenegger of international politics.” It properly understands the latest post-Bush president elected in the name of “hope” and “change” [32] to be simply the empire’s latest new-old clothes. 

Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010). His next is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014, forthcoming, Paradigm)

Selected Endnotes

1. Eric Brown, “In Gallup Poll, Leading Threat to World Peace is….America?” International Business Times, January 2, 2014,

2. The Der Spiegel quote is replicated at the front of William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2005).

3. Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” New York Times, May 6, 2009.

4. Gall and Shah, “Civilian Deaths;”

5. Christina Boyle, “President Obama Calls Air Force One Flyover ‘Mistake’ After Low-Flying Plane Terrifies New York,” New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Michel Muskai, “Presidential Plane’s Photo-Op Over New York Coast as Much as $357,000,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009; Peter Nicholas, “Louis Caldera Resigns Over Air Force One Flyover Fiasco,” Los Angeles Time, May 9, 2009.

6. Paul Street, “Niebuhr Lives, Civilians Die in the Age of Obama,” ZNet (June 15, 2009), read at

7. Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,”  Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 20, 2006,

8. Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (New York: Verso, 2005, p. xiii; Anthony Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New York: New Press, 2006), 27-28.

9. Mann, Incoherent Empire, xii.

10. Patrick Cockburn, “Toxic Legacy of US Assault ‘Worse Than Hiroshima,” Independent (UK), July 24, 2010,

11. Tom Engelhardt, “The Corpse on the Gurney,”, January 18, 2008.

12. “The Death of Iraq,” Current History, December 2007, 31.

13. Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 142-143.

14. Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003); Ward Churchill, From a Native Son: Selected Essays on Indigenism, 1985-1995 (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1996).

15. Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006), 50.

16. Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atom Bomb (New York: Vintage, 1996)

17. And “after the Vietnam War was ended in 1975,” Chomsky noted in 1992, “the major policy goal of the US has been to maximize repression and suffering in the countries that were devastated y our violence. The degree of the cruelty is quite astonishing. When the Mennonites tried to send pencils to Cambodia, the State Department tried to stop them. When Oxfam tried to send ten solar pumps, the reaction was the same. The same was true when religious groups tried to send shovels to Laos to dig up some of the unexploded shells left by American bombing. When India tried to send 100 water buffaloes to Vietnam to replace the huge herds that were destroyed by the American attacks – and remember, in this primitive country, water-buffalo mean fertilizer, tractors, survival – the United States threatened to cancel Food for Peace aid. That’s one Orwell would have appreciated).No degree of cruelty is too great for Washington sadists. The educated classes know enough to look the other way.” Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley, CA: Odonian Press, 1992), 58-59. As Chomsky has noted in other places, “Vietnam War” being a rather awkward term for a one sided US imperial assault

18. Ramsey Clark and others, War Crimes: A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal, testimony of Joyce Chediac at



21. Scahill, Dirty Wars, 248-251, 253. As Scahill ads, summarizing the chasm between campaign rhetoric and policy when it came to Obama’s shift from candidate to president: “Laying out policy visions on the campaign trail was one thing, but confronting the most secretive, elite forces in the US national security apparatus would be no easy task. The more the president became involved with the day-to-day running of the targeting killing program, the more it expanded. By the end of his first year in office, Obama and his new counterterrorism team would begin building the infrastructure for a formalized US assassination program.”

22. Kinzer, Overthrow, 107. Kinzer forgot to add that “the material prosperity of the United States” is generally a nice-sounding euphemism or “the profits of the US economic ruling class.” As Noam Chomsky noted in 1969, “There are, to be sure, costs of empire that benefit no one: 50,000 American corpses or the deterioration in the strength of the United States economy relative to its industrial rivals. The costs of empire to the imperial society as a whole may be considerable. These costs, however, are social costs, whereas, say, the profits from overseas investment guaranteed by military success are again highly concentrated in certain special segments of the society. The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within” (emphasis added).Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 47

23. Blum, Rogue State, Opening Quotes.


25. Blum, Rogue State, Opening Quotes.

26. Blum, Rogue State, Opening Quotes.


28. “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama to the Chicago Council on Global on Global Affairs,” April 23, 2007, global-affairs/p13172

29. Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs (July-August 2007),


31. M Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Touchstone, 1983), 72-75. Peck made an interesting distinction between the truly evil, whose main flaw is “malignant narcissism” (Eric Fromm’s term), and mere sociopaths: “The cause is not, I believe, an absent conscience. There are people, both in and out of jail, who seem utterly lacking in conscience or superego. Psychiatrists call them psychopaths or sociopaths. Guiltless, they not only commit crimes but may often do so with a kind of reckless abandon…there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry or concern….This is hardly the case with those I call evil,” who Peck found to be constantly trying to sell their badness as goodness.

32. These were also the watchwords of the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign. Those candidate branding terms were appropriated by the Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008 along with two other Clinton’92 hallmarks: “it’s the economy stupid” and the promise of health care refor

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