Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America

President George Bush has decided to disregard both the political message of the 2006 midterm election and congressional pressure for an early end to America’s Iraq involvement, as well as the Baker-Hamilton proposals. These decisions are meeting much opposition, which is likely to fail. Bush’s opponents have been unable to propose a course of withdrawal that is not a politically prohibited concession of American defeat and that does not risk still more destructive consequences in Iraq and probably the region—even though the result of delayed withdrawal could be worse in all respects. Most of Bush’s critics in Congress, in the press and television, and in the foreign policy community are hostage to past support of his policy and to their failure to question the political and ideological assumptions upon which it was built.

This followed from a larger intellectual failure. For years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the limited, specific, and ultimately successful postwar American policy of “patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies…and pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” (as George Kennan formulated it at the time) has over six decades turned into a vast project for “ending tyranny in the world.”

The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

This is where the problem lies. Other American leaders before George Bush have made the same claim in matters of less moment. It is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not.

This is a national conceit that is the comprehensible result of the religious beliefs of the early New England colonists (Calvinist religious dissenters, moved by millenarian expectations and theocratic ideas), which convinced them that their austere settlements in the wilderness represented a new start in humanity’s story. However, the earlier Virginia settlements were commercial, as were those of the Dutch, and the proprietary colonies in Pennsylvania and Maryland were Quaker and Catholic, and had no such ideas. Nor did the earliest colonies, the Spanish in Florida and the Southwest, and the French on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

The nobility of the colonies’ constitutional deliberations following the War of Independence, and the expression of the new thought of the Enlightenment in the institutions of government they created, contributed to this belief in national uniqueness. Thomas Paine wrote that

the case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world…. We have no occasion to roam for information …

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