The Death of Brand America

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 7/12/07


Hillary Clinton is making “Restoring America’s Standing in the World” a cornerstone of her campaign. Former president Bill Clinton, stumping for his wife, told a Cedar Rapids, Iowa audience, “You want to restore America’s standing in the world overnight? Elect her in 2008 as President of the United States.” Dennis Ross, papa Bush’s former State Department Director for Policy Planning, just authored a book entitled “How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.” Peter Singer, Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, argues in a piece, that, “The deep and rapid deterioration of America’s standing in the world is one of the greatest challenges the United States now faces.” Barak Obama drew applause last month in Keokuk, Iowa when he promised the crowd that if elected president, he would end the Iraq War and improve America’s standing in the world.

It’s like no one stuck their finger in the dyke, and suddenly, with the nation almost entirely submerged, the last survivor noticed that there’s a growing puddle around him. The United States’ standing in the world, as measured in both our moral, economic and military might, has been in a free fall ever since George W. Bush took over the reigns of government and started negating international treaties—beginning with the Kyoto Accords—while flouting international law and common standards of decency and decorum.

One has to question what kind of a standing in the world the U.S. had before George W. Bush. Wars of aggression are certainly nothing new for us. The ’60s saw U.S. aggression against Brazil (1962 coup), Zaire (1964 coup), the Dominican Republic (1965 invasion), Greece (1967 coup) and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

During the 1970s the U.S. supported coups in Bolivia (1971) and Chile (1973) and a failed coup in Cyprus (1974) as well as U.S. backing for forces in Afghanistan that later came to be known as al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In the 1980s the Reagan administration supported paramilitary death squads killing and raping opponents of murderous U.S. backed governments in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras while training and arming terrorists trying to destabilize the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. The U.S. also invaded Grenada (1983) and Panama (1988) and joined apartheid South Africa in training and arming rebels fighting to overthrow Angola’s popular leftist government.

Compared to this rather abbreviated history, George W. Bush’s wars shouldn’t seem aberrational. What sets them apart from other recent wars, however, is an absolute lack of any coherent argument, truthful or otherwise, rationalizing the administration’s decision to wage both war and occupation. Then there’s the administration’s abysmal record of incompetence, waging war based on obvious and transparent lies, after they’ve been debunked by the global press, then losing the war to an enemy that barely existed at the outset of the war.

By their second term occupying the White House, the Bush administration laid bare the inner mechanics of American empire for all to see. Mind you, it’s not that these mechanics, the nuts and bolts of imperialism, didn’t exist before. It’s just that they weren’t so blatantly in your face. Aside from small circles of obsessed intellectuals and conversationally-challenged academics, nobody really knew about torture camps, for example; we at least pretended to take the moral high ground. Now torture is part of the American Zeitgeist, and the world knows it. In their eyes we are a rogue state—a pariah that deprives its captives of the most basic human rights. We stand for nothing. That is nothing except for the “go it alone” doctrine of might makes right. We’re the Sopranos of the world. We invaded Iraq because we could. You got a problem with that?

The second problem with the Bush team is that they’re not really the Sopranos. They just fancy themselves as playas. They’re more like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Think Simpsons, not Sopranos. They didn’t just expose our moral weaknesses. They exposed the United States’ military weaknesses as well. Like our client state, Israel, our military is set up to win in state to state battlefield combat, a type of warfare that died with the 20th Century. The U.S. military was unprepared for the war Bush got it into—a house-to-house, person-to-person war of RPGs and roadside bombs waged in a hostile environment.

It turns out all we can do is kill people—massive amounts of people—in a culture where the dead are martyred and their deaths avenged. Ultimately we have endless war where individual adherence to ideology is proving more powerful than technology. The U.S., the world now knows, is not invincible. It’s not the sole superpower. People, that angry mass of humanity, comprise the sole superpower.

What the neocons never realized is that the U.S. ruled not with “hard” military power, but with the “soft” power of the American brand. People either liked us, or they feared us, or some combination of the two. Citizens in “enemy” states wore Nike knock-offs and drank Coca-Cola whenever they could get their hands on it while dreaming of coming to America. These bling-laden warriors fantasized more of MTV than jihad. But everyone loves a winner. And jihad is winning. Now even secular youth dream of jihad because it’s cool, like Che Guevara was to two generations of Americans. But like him or not, Che never targeted civilians. The jihad the Bushies empowered ain’t a struggle for liberation. It’s militant chaos fueled by the false ethos of liberation.

Then there was America’s economic might. That’s gone. Victim to Clinton-era trade policies, the Wal-Mart “Chinese Embassy” model, the Bush tax cuts for the rich and the bills for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

This all adds up to what the pundits now see as the most destructive legacy of the Bush administration—the destruction of the United States’ image in the world, the end of the three-generation long dominance of Brand America.

Dr. Michael I. Niman teaches journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His columns are available online at, archived at and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2007

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