Richard Reeves

Here We Go Again: Manifest Destiny II

WASHINGTON -- Here is one European analysis of what the world is seeing now and will for long time:

"Europeans may wish to believe that a small coterie of 'neoconservative' maniacs has hijacked United States policy. They may assume that the natural order of things as they perceive it -- the restraint of American power through European wisdom -- will sooner or later triumph. But such expectations are delusional. Those who find militant Islam terrifying have clearly never seen a militant democracy."

The author of those thoughts, published in The Financial Times last Tuesday, is a professor of international history at the London School of Economics, MacGregor Knox. He is not anti-American or a pacifist. In fact, he served in the first American combat unit to land in Vietnam, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the same unit that jumped into northern Iraq on March 26.

The article he wrote is essentially a short history of the American way of war: "Destruction of the enemy state and 'reconstruction' of its society."

First discussing the American wars against the British Empire and Mexico (to say nothing of the Indians along the way) to gain control of North America, Knox then states that the formative American conflict -- and the doctrine of "total war" -- was the Civil War. Now, he sees the United States engaged in a global civil war.

"The warriors of militant Islam ... in killing more Americans -- almost all of them civilians -- than died at Pearl Harbor, have unleashed American total war," Knox writes. "Indeed it is hard to imagine a provocation more likely than Sept. 11, 2001, to achieve the precise opposite of its authors' goal -- universal jihad leading to Islamist world domination."

And, Knox adds, they picked on the wrong guy:

"The U.S. president, despite a sometimes sketchy command of English grammar, has proved remarkably undeterred by objective obstacles, conventional wisdom and diplomatic taboo. George W. Bush has not shrunk from demanding the unconditional surrender of the Taliban and Ba'ath Party dictatorships. And he appears intent on improving the international deportment of a number of other regimes, or overthrowing them altogether."

This is not new, of course. Americans, like Muslims, see war not as diplomacy by other means, but as a kind of religious crusade. Dwight Eisenhower's memoir of his World War II years was aptly titled "Crusade in Europe." And in the wars of and threats of wars in the 1840s, the United States found its way west by waving the banner of "manifest destiny," a phrase coined by a Brooklyn newspaper editor named John O'Sullivan, who, in 1839, wrote:

"Away, away with all these cobweb tissues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, contiguity, etc. ... The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to spread and possess the whole of the continent to which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us. It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth."

The line was picked by another unlikely president, James K. Polk, who was not about to be deprived of Texas, part of Mexico, and Oregon, a British settlement, by cobweb tissues. The rest is history.

And that history may be repeating itself, not on a continental scale this time, but on a global scale. Or, as O'Sullivan put it:

"Our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only. ... America is destined for better deeds. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits on our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can. ... All this will be our future history, to establish on Earth the moral dignity and salvation of man -- the immutable truth and beneficence of God."

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