Michael Cohen (a former speechwriter for the US ambassador to the UN) illustrates why so many Americans are incapable of understanding US foreign policy:
I believe that America is inherently good. That goodness, if you will, comes from the basic values that I believe underpin this nation, from not only our founding documents and in particular the Bill of Rights, but from the ongoing efforts to ensure the spread of freedom and opporunity [sic] to all our citizens. If you think this sounds hackneyed that is your right - you have as much right to hate America as I do to love it, but I apologize to no one for my patriotism and basic faith in America and its people.
The belief that America is inherently good is what makes so many people impervious to mountains of evidence that the United States is, in fact, exactly like every other powerful nation throughout history: driven first and foremost by its interests (namely the interests of those who govern it and the groups they represent); bent on extending its control and influence; and concerned with human rights and international law mainly to the extent that they can be used to rationalize and provide cover for those actual underlying motivations.
When this Doctrine of the Inherent Goodness of the United States is fixed firmly in someone's mind, they literally can't get there from here. They've foreclosed the possibility of arriving at one entire set of conclusions before the questions are even considered. It's like asserting categorically that nothing heavier than air can fly under its own power, and then trying to explain how a jumbo jet gets from London to Rome; it's literally impossible to arrive at the correct explanation.
Adherents of the DOTIGOTUS are constantly faced with cognitive
dissonance, which can only be resolved through increasingly tortured
rationalizations and outright rejection of reality. The overthrow
of Iranian democracy and support for the Shah of Iran (along with a
host of other tyrants), the killing of millions of Vietnamese, the
sponsorship of and bipartisan
support for the genocidal Indonesian invasion of East Timor, the
instigation of mass slaughter in Central America throughout the 1980s, the
refusal even to call what was happening in Rwanda in 1994 "genocide"
and the shameful lies that were offered for the failure to act--these are just a few of the
endless examples in which reality and the DOTIGOTUS conflict. In each
of these cases (and in the dozens I didn't mention) you'll find true
believers doing everything in their power to avoid the simple, obvious conclusion that the US acts without any regard for human
rights or international law.
I'm speaking from experience here, because I wholeheartedly embraced the DOTIGOTUS for most of my life. I believed, reflexively, that the United States was inherently good, and I interpreted everything the US did on the basis of this belief. This was not in any way a considered position; it was just my birthright as an American, and particularly so as the son of a military officer. It was as unquestioned and natural to me as breathing.
My embarrassingly naive beliefs collided violently with reality in 1991, after I'd just finished watching the US decimate Iraq in the name of freedom and human rights. I'd soaked up the news coverage gleefully night after night, cheering each bomb and every cruise missile we fired at the enemy, impatiently flipping channels to try to catch the good bits one more time. Here was America fulfilling its "basic values" and displaying to the world its willingness to fight for the cause of freedom.
But after the inevitable US victory (and by extension my own personal victory as well), something inexplicable happened. Iraqi Shiites and Kurds listened to George H.W. Bush's call to rise up against Saddam Hussein, and Hussein responded with predictably brutal force, killing tens of thousands. But the US did nothing to block Hussein or assist the rebels in any way, despite the rising death toll and increasing criticism. The news reports that used to validate my viewpoint were now contradicting it at every turn--and the hollow repetition of official excuses by the talking heads didn't soften the impact at all. There was simply no way to square what the US was doing (and what US officials were saying) with my beliefs, and I felt deeply unsettled and genuinely confused.
So how did I resolve the conflict? The way any good DOTIGOTUS believer would: I assumed that there must be more to it than I was hearing, and that if I knew what government officials knew I might see that their approach was the one that would actually do the most good in the long run. At the worst, I thought that they were acting out of a caution that sacrificed our lofty values on the altar of pragmatism, and that while this may have been a mistake, it was only a momentary diversion from the path of righteousness (soon to be rejoined when a Democrat took over the White House).
The simple truth--that the lives of those Iraqis mattered not one whit in the political calculations of the US government--was unthinkable to me, and wouldn't be for many years, when I finally started paying close attention to politics in general and US foreign policy in particular. It's still amazing to me how simple it became to understand the US's role in the world once I was willing to follow the facts wherever they might lead rather than trying to bend reality to a predetermined conclusion.
When I talk to true believers these days I'll often suggest that they suspend this one assumption, even if only momentarily or for the sake of argument. It may be the first time they've tried looking at the US as they would any other country in the world, and if they're open-minded at all the experience will make them think--and there's a good chance it will stay with them.