President Eisenhower famously warned his fellow Americans about the pernicious influence of what he termed "the military-industrial complex." This was, to be sure, an important speech for many reasons, not the least of which were its prescience about the challenges that U.S. preeminence would pose for our domestic liberties and the prudent counsel of restraint he proffered to protect them. But, ironically, its most famous line was wide of the mark in identifying the roots of America's subsequent global overreach.
Eisenhower cautioned that the country needed to be careful in how it used its growing might. Recognizing the dark side of such unrivaled power, the retiring president warned against America's "recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties." He pointed to the need to strike a balance--to become a military superpower while not undermining our free-market economy and the liberty of our citizens.
The danger, in the old soldier's view, was that we would give in to "the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."
But the speech's central contention--that the root of the imbalance between our capabilities and interests on the one hand, and our aspirations on the other, lay in an unholy alliance between militarism and capitalism--strikes me from the perspective of half a century later as misguided, and not only because its most oft-quoted phrase has become a staple of the anti-American Left. It was, after all, not generals and plutocrats who impelled us upon that imperial trajectory that Ike so presciently warned against. To understand what drove us to become a quasi-imperial power, we have to look to the role of our liberal political culture.
January 20, 2011 is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's first and only inaugural speech, which contained many memorable phrases that would crystallize the bipartisan consensus in favor of an overly ambitious American foreign policy. In it, the new president promised to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." He enthusiastically welcomed "the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger." These stirring sentiments would seduce Americans across the political spectrum, from human-rights liberals to neoconservatives, and lead them to coalesce behind a series of foreign-policy debacles from Vietnam to Iraq.
The problem with American liberalism, as the Harvard government professor Louis Hartz observed, is that it has a tendency toward excess in opposite directions: on the one hand, liberalism underestimates the difficulty of transforming the world in its own image because liberalism assumes that it is the natural culmination and aspiration of humanity--that it is, as Francis Fukuyama would later put it, "the end of history." On the other hand, liberalism contains a deep fear of the non-liberal--whether a Communist/nationalist rebellion in Southeast Asia in the 1960s or an Islamicist rival today--and fosters the sense that America could never survive in the face of such opposition. In a classic manifestation of the hubris-nemesis complex, these two very different faces of American liberalism combine Janus-like to produce a self-righteous yet trembling colossus stumbling around the world.
That liberalism--specifically a desire to spread democracy and protect human rights--was the fount of America's most recent exercise in overreach, the Bush administration's Iraq War, is controversial. …