Syria shows the US isn't the world's "good cop"

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On Monday, the world watched in horror as military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad bore down on the last rebel-held pockets of eastern Aleppo. On social media, amid stark images of a once-bustling city reduced to rubble, local residents, journalists and aid workers shared their haunting goodbyes throughout the day.

"This is a call and might be the last call," @MrAlhamdo, who identified himself as an activist, teacher and reporter in Aleppo, tweeted. "Save Aleppo people. Save my daughter and other children."

Many of the city's more than 30,000 remaining residents face probable capture, torture or death if caught by Assad's forces. At least 82 civilians ended up killed in Monday's military push, according to Al Jazeera, including 11 women and 13 children. The casualty and displacement numbers out of Syria since the civil war began in 2011 are equally chilling: More than 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict, with 7.6 million internally displaced and 4.6 million more refugees abroad, Amnesty International reported.

Americans have long believed themselves to inhabit a singular country, which plays the role of "good cop" in international affairs and can be relied upon to act in the interest of spreading democracy. The country might lose its way occasionally, the story goes, but in the end it chooses the righteous path. 

But the response from many U.S. leaders to Syria shows just how far from reality this myth is. 

President-elect Donald Trump making a speech in Wisconsin  Don Emmert/Getty Images

The election of Donald Trump is perhaps the most dramatic evidence in recent years that American exceptionalism is a myth. Watching the bodies of displaced refugees wash onto Europe's shores, drowning by the thousands, it's hard to forget the cruel message he and so many American politicians have sent to these people and their families. 

Though more than 12,000 Syrians have been resettled in the United States in 2016 to date, Trump has called for a ban on their entry into the country. In November 2015, 30 state governors — 29 of whom were Republicans — announced that they did not want displaced Syrian refugees resettled in their states.

This stance is consistent with the ruthlessly ethno-nationalist shift U.S. politics have undergone in the past year. Trump's expressed concept of "American" is inherently exclusionary. It boils largely down to whiteness, natural-born citizenship and extravagant displays of mindless patriotism. His vision for America's future is devoid of empathy. A large contingent of Americans have fallen in line behind him.

But there's also historical precedent for this. By many accounts, the Second World War codified American exceptionalism on the world stage as the norm. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the country "the great arsenal of democracy" in a 1940 speech announcing the United States' commitment to arming the British against the Axis powers. He doubled down on that commitment the following year, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially joined the war.

By the war's end, it was hard to argue that America had not done right. Despite its flaws and sins, we had helped lead the world in defeating Nazism. For years after the fighting ended, we contributed heavily to the rebuilding of the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, which are now three of the globe's thriving liberal democracies.

But this moment was also thick with hypocrisy. American domestic politics were defined by violent racial inequality, with Jim Crow laws active throughout the American South and Japanese-Americans being rounded up and sent to internment camps. In the decades that followed the war, the U.S. used its self-perception as global freedom police to justify more dubious military adventures, including the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and more.

Children play as buses evacuate Aleppo in the background, December 2016.  Stringer/Getty Images

Not to mention we were far worse friends to European refugees than we'd prefer to remember. At one point in the 1930s, Congress declined to pass a bill that would have let 20,000 Jewish refugees settle in the U.S. In a notorious 1939 incident, the U.S. government rejected a German ocean liner called the St. Louis at the port in Miami, which was carrying 908 people, mostly Jewish refugees. The majority of the refugees ended up being sent back to Europe. Of those on board the ship at the time, 254 died in the Holocaust.

Today, we embrace the rhetoric of American exceptionalism to our own detriment. Not only does it ignore the darker chapters in our history; it glosses over the fact that being a moral leader is a choice, not a given. 

As Aleppo falls and the civil war in Syria continues, many believe the U.S. will be remembered for its failure to intervene militarily. But the more troubling lapse is far simpler: that we treated the war's victims with such scorn. That in our haste to see ourselves as a great nation, we forgot, first and foremost, to be a good nation. In the same way we don't forget when America is right, we should also take note when America is wrong. Let us never forget how proudly so many of our leaders — including our next president — trumpeted their rejection of those who've been displaced, and we should think hard about whether the leaders of a truly exceptional nation would do the same.