- America’s recent foreign policy has been enabled by a central idea: the United States does things differently. It wages wars differently. It suspends habeas corpus sparingly and with great restraint. It encroaches on liberties more gingerly. And it puts military men and women at risk with a respectful selectivity. To advance this mythology, the federal government has, time and again, insisted that it acts with painstaking precision when it resorts to military intervention or security-state measures at home. This, officials have consistently suggested, is the American distinction.
Precision is what still seems to separate the United States from the Third World, as U.S. actions become increasingly similar to those often employed by underdeveloped countries. The myth justifies a surviving claim to global distinction, despite the errors, violations, and setbacks of the post-9/11 era. The U.S. may torture detainees like a Latin American dictatorship. It may subject its own people to surveillance of the sort once identified with the Eastern Bloc. And it may resort to violence as swiftly as any inner-city gang. But America’s government does these things with surgical exactitude, carefully distinguishing guilty from innocent. Confidence in this precision provides a buffer; it separates us from them. But the precision defense rests on an unstable pretense, as America’s escalating drone war shows.