Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz have written a book entitled Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America. The Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt on August 29, with the headline “Restoring American Exceptionalism.”
In the excerpt, Cheney sought to identify his views on foreign policy with those of Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan. That is a highly dubious proposition. Unlike the de facto President of Foreign Policy during George W. Bush’s first term in office, Eisenhower and Reagan were extremely cautious in sending American forces abroad; and both presidents pursued foreign-policy objectives that reflected our national interests. Even Reagan’s strategy to win the Cold War involved a very limited deployment of U.S. military forces into combat situations. As for his policy in the Middle East, Reagan himself wrote in his diaries that his biggest foreign-policy mistake was sending U.S. Marines into Lebanon:
Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and complexity of the problems that make the Middle East such a jungle. Perhaps the idea of a suicide car bomber committing mass murder to gain instant entry to Paradise was so foreign to our own values and consciousness that it did not create in us the concern for the Marines’ safety that it should have. Perhaps we should have anticipated that members of the Lebanese military whom we were trying to assist would simply lay down their arms and refuse to fight their own countrymen. In any case, the sending of the Marines to Beirut was the source of my greatest regret and my greatest sorrow as president. Every day since the death of those boys, I have prayed for them and their loved ones.
I was a member of President Reagan’s White House staff, and I don’t remember him ever using the phrase American exceptionalism in his speeches and writings. He did refer to America as a “shining city upon a hill,” words borrowed from the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who borrowed them from the Bible. Dr. Gavin Finley has noted that Winthrop’s vision for America was for “a just and pious Nation under God.” I suspect that Reagan viewed America in a similar light.
Nonetheless, neoconservatives repeatedly try to take Reagan’s words and conform them to their own definition of American exceptionalism. Former Bush speechwriter and neoconservative commentator for FOX News Marc Thiessen has claimed that this language should be taken as support for Thiessen’s own War Hawk views on Middle East policy. John Bolton, another leading neoconservative, told the American Enterprise Institute that “we need a President who believes in American exceptionalism.” Newt Gingrich dedicated an entire book to the subject: A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.
We never used the expression during the Goldwater/Reagan era of conservative politics, and it was not a phrase associated with the anticommunist cause when the Soviet Empire was the preeminent threat to the Christian West. American exceptionalism only came into vogue in the post-Cold War period of American politics when the neoconservative pundits and War Hawks increasingly came to dominate the foreign-policy positions of the GOP.
Oddly enough, American exceptionalism is a gift from the far left. In an article for The Atlantic, Terrence McCoy claims that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin used it “to describe uncooperative American communists.” The BBC reported that in 1929 American communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this “heresy of American exceptionalism.”
Ben Alpers has written an in-depth article about the origin of the phrase, and he, too, finds that it “originated among Marxist theorists between World War I and [World War] II as a way to explain why America did not develop a strong socialist movement.”
Sociologist Seymour Lipset, a former national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League and a man who called Sen. Barry Goldwater (who was half-Jewish) a “neo-Nazi” during the 1964 presidential campaign, morphed into a neoconservative later in life. Lipset’s book American Exceptionalism was published in 1996. Francis Fukuyama referred to Lipset as “the most thoughtful contemporary authority on American exceptionalism.”
Lipset describes American exceptionalism this way:
[T]he nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. The revolutionary ideology which became the American Creed is liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings, as distinct from conservative Toryism, statist communitarianism, mercantilism, and noblesse oblige dominant in monarchical, state-church-formed cultures.
Lipset’s notion of American exceptionalism strikes me as much more compatible with the egalitarianism of the French Revolution than with the arguments in favor of the Constitution set forth in the Federalist. He goes as far as to claim that the phrase itself comes from Alexis de Tocque ville’s Democracy in America, but T. David Gordon has debunked that myth in an April 2011 article for the Center for Vision and Values.
The columnist Charles Krauthammer, a speechwriter for liberal Sen. Walter Mondale during my time in the Reagan administration, invokes American exceptionalism to justify a global American empire:
We have overwhelming global power: We are history’s designated custodians of the international system. When the Soviet Union fell, something new was born, something utterly new—a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe. This is a staggering new development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome. Even Rome was no model for what America is today.
That’s what neocons like Krauthammer, Thiessen, Cheney, Bolton, and Bill Kristol mean when they use the term: America’s unique existence justifies and even demands the use of U.S. military force to impose America’s will on the rest of the world. Unfortunately, there was nothing exceptional about the last major war effort that was driven by the neoconservative ideology. The war in Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein and install democracy in the Middle East failed spectacularly, ethnically cleansing the region of its ancient Christian population, wasting American blood and treasure, and making way for ISIS to seize the reins of power. Subsequent efforts to impose democracy in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have met with similar results.
How can anyone still refer to America as exceptional—in any positive way—when we take the lives of a million and a half unborn infants every year through legalized abortion? Or when the U.S. Supreme Court pretends that same-sex marriage is on the same footing as marriage between a man and woman? How can we claim that America is exceptional when we have strayed so far from our constitutional principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and limited government—the very things that helped make us exceptional in the first place? What is exceptional about a people that has joined the nations of Europe in giving evidence for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “Men have forgotten God”?
On the contrary, as William Lind has noted, one sure sign that a nation is in decline is that it constantly needs to declare that it is special, significant, exceptional.
Authentic conservatives need to forget the language of American exceptionalism and leave it to the neoconservatives and the Marxists who popularized it. Then we might begin the hard work of bringing America home to her founding principles and reverse the decline that has been so evident in recent decades.
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