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The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy

The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy by William Pfaff. Walker & Co., 2010, 219 pp.

Character traits, whether of individuals or nations, run deep. The historian Richard Hofstadter once described what he called “the paranoid style in American politics,” as a temper of political discourse among angry minds, right and left, marked by “qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

The “paranoid style” in American politics today manifests itself on the Tea Party rightist fringe, in Michael Moore’s Hollywood, and among left-wing intellectuals. Journalist William Pfaff’s book, along with a companion article in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2010), offers a specimen of the latter. Pfaff’s overwrought, conspiratorial screed predicts a tragic ending for what he characterizes as a utopian American mission to spread universal democracy. In the author’s fevered imagination, America might even wreak the end of the world.

According to Pfaff, enlightenment secular utopianism, the project of creating a perfect society here on earth, spawned the ideological violence of the twentieth century and gave rise as well to the American mission of promoting universal democracy. Pfaff’s Procrustean history encompasses Stalin’s dictatorship of the proletariat, Hitler’s Aryan Thousand Year Reich, and George W. Bush’s American leadership of a new world order. For Pfaff it is a short step from Stalin’s gulag and Nazi death camps to the presidency of George W. Bush. Indeed, Nazi racism survives in the United States! But the author only warms to his subject.

Pfaff locates the sources of America’s demonic ambition in John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” and Tom Paine’s vision of America as a new age unlike all others. To this toxic brew were added the nineteenth-century Protestant notion of America as “God’s own country,” a legacy of violence fostered by the frontier and chattel slavery, and the contemporary evangelical illusion of America as God’s salvific agent, together forging an American tradition of “state violence” unknown in (pacific?) Western Europe. Woodrow Wilson transformed the national myth of election into an instrument of intervention to establish world democracy. Since Wilson, Manifest Destiny has metastasized into a bipartisan, militarized foreign policy, erecting over 1,000 military bases around the globe to enforce US world dominion. Beguiled by a neoconservative/Jewish cabal, George W. Bush sought to recreate the Middle East into a vassal of American/Israeli rule.

In Pfaff’s historical rendering, America (swayed by Jewish influence) created its own enemy in the Muslim world. American official discourse and public opinion perversely portrayed 9/11 as a Muslim declaration of war against the West. Muslim hostility toward the West reflects a natural reaction to foreign intrusion in Islamic lands, the West’s grab for Middle Eastern oil, and those pesky Jews in Israel. Pfaff considers Islamic extremism an ephemeral, transient phenomenon, as Muslims work out their identity crisis caused by Western interference. This too, he suggests, will pass, like a teenage identity crisis. With unsurpassed understatement, he writes: “I seem to be one of the very few Americans who do not believe in the enormity of the Islamic radical threat.”

The author depicts a sinister conspiracy plotting a militarized American foreign policy threatening American democracy itself: elite foreign policymakers, “Israeli foreign policy objectives,” a military-industrial complex feeding off a Prussianized American society, neoconservatives, and the Christian right. He proposes a “noninterventionist” foreign policy, jettisoning the state of Israel and letting other countries sort out their own problems. Pondering various denouements for an “evil empire,” Pfaff descends into apocalyptic delirium: “I suppose there could also be a catastrophic end, in which a maddened American elite would show an ungrateful world why all those nuclear weapons had been saved.” That sentence dismays the reader about what possesses this writer’s thoughts.

It is difficult to know how to regard this book. Readers will not recognize in it the country that for seven decades has performed the unparalleled task of sustaining the international architecture of stability and prosperity. Pfaff’s contemptible conflation of America’s world leadership with twentieth-century totalitarianism does not merit a response. His historical view obliterates historical comprehension and affronts elemental moral decency. Slandering the all-volunteer force (AVF) as the unaccountable cat’s paw of the military-industrial complex, Pfaff asserts that the United States today has become Prussia, “a state owned by its army,” ringing the world with over 1,000 military bases to enforce the American imperium.

Pfaff misrepresents America’s role in the world partly because he does not understand its founding. He chooses as its founding avatar the propagandist Thomas Paine, who played no part in the founding and later wrote a venomous diatribe against Washington. Paine’s belief that America heralded a new age unlike all others, Pfaff wrongly claims, inspired the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Pfaff fails to comprehend the Lockean character of those founding documents and the entire Anglo-American political tradition stretching back through Locke to the Magna Carta. That tradition bequeathed to the founders the principles of individual liberty, representative government, and the rule of law. The Federalists constructed a complex democratic republic based on a deep distrust of human nature and the exercise of political power. They designed a constitution to limit and divide the power of popular government to make it safe for liberty, not to create heaven on earth.

Finally, Pfaff’s treatment of the meaning of 9/11, of our invented Islamic threat, and Western culpability rests upon a fabrication of the facts. According to Pfaff, the Bush administration exploited the 9/11 attacks and terrorism as “codified references to a generalized Islamic threat.” In fact, no one in the Bush administration suggested this. On September 17, six days after the attacks, President Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington to declare the opposite, assuring listeners that America understands that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and that we are at war with radical jihadist terrorism, not Islam. The president and administration aides repeated that message in numerous speeches and remarks. Pfaff’s account of the US troop deployment in the “holy land of Saudi Arabia” after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and his depiction of Crusader (i.e., American and Israeli) intrusion into the Muslim world (the ummah) distort a complex set of events and read like a tract from Osama bin Laden.

This is a troubling and troubled book. Pfaff’s polemical revision of history and disregard for the facts are troubling, yet common enough traits among the chattering class. His conspiratorialism, anti-Semitism, and apocalypticism make it a troubled book not worth the effort to read.

John Coffey, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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