LONDON — America’s notion of its national sense of “manifest destiny” has been a mainstay of its internal expansion and then its involvement with the world in the past century. This has frequently been of enormous benefit to the rest of the globe. But it can lead the most powerful nation on Earth into undertakings that would be best tempered with a less visionary approach.
The doctrine of manifest destiny was initially enunciated to justify the expansion from the east of the North American continent to occupy the whole of the land mass to the Pacific Ocean. In the last century, it took on a wider meaning as the United States became a superpower, and engaged with the rest of the world.
In World War II, the might of U.S. arms was accompanied by a conviction that the spread of democracy made the conflict a struggle between good and evil. Then there was a manifest destiny in America’s backing for the defense of the West in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. More recently, it merged with the economic spread of globalization to bring a Clinton-era conviction that the planet could be made a more unified, less fractious place by enlightened internationalism, spearheaded by the U.S. with the help of free markets.
The war in Vietnam had shown how the sense of a special mission could lead to a quagmire. There and elsewhere, Washington gave its backing to regimes imbued with anything but the values proclaimed by Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
Now, as articulated in a far more unilateralist fashion than during the Clinton years, the sense of manifest destiny lies behind the offensive in Iraq. The question must increasingly be asked whether the “coalition of the willing’ will find that it is being led into an ideologically driven campaign that is bound to set it at odds with much of the world.
The sense of a moral crusade is buttressed by the degree of religious faith among leaders, not only in Washington but also in Britain. British Prime Minister Tony Blair makes less of his faith in public, but has always been driven by a conviction that what he is doing must be done because it is fundamentally right. In the Bush administration, the prayers before Cabinet meetings fuse naturally with the belief of the old and new conservatives sitting round the table that they are carrying out a mission on behalf of American values. Once the fight in Iraq is set in terms of fundamental values, it becomes that much more of an essential battle in which there can be no compromises — a rerun of the unconditional surrender policy adopted by Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1942.
With their strong sense of patriotism, Americans — perhaps more than any other democratic people — not only want to be on the winning side, but also believe that they have a manifest right to be there. This may be because they see themselves as “God’s own people” or because of the ideals set forth in their revolution and embodied in their constitution. These, they feel, set them at the head of the forces of enlightenment then and now — a claim that naturally puts them at odds with the other nation claiming to represent a universal model after its revolution, France.
In the current war, the administration clearly placed excessive faith in the immediate impact of the “shock and awe” aerial campaign in the opening days of the conflict. Whether U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was guilty of ignoring military advice that more time was needed to complete the build-up of land forces will be determined by subsequent investigations and the history books. But what is evident is that Rumsfeld’s belief in a quick victory sprang not only from America’s military might, but also from the tradition of manifest destiny.
Washington, in this case, was crusading for good against the evil represented by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Since people should always welcome good and oppose evil, it was only natural to assume that the Iraqis would rise up to greet the coalition forces and chase Hussein and his men from power.
What was not taken into account was that the Iraqis might take a more nuanced view of the situation. Like villagers in Vietnam seeing troops of the First Air Cavalry Division leaping from helicopters in the jungle, they might see the tanks and their crews as invaders of their homeland rather than as simple liberators.
However benevolent the invaders intended to be, the accumulation of civilian deaths was bound to act against the hoped-for welcome in the streets of the towns and villages on the way toward Baghdad. The psychological effects of living under a dictatorship for so long could only affect the way people thought, while the links of one kind or other that many of those to be liberated had with Hussein’s regime must make them fear for a future in which Iraqi groups in exile would rule the roost under American protection.
Nor was the lesson of 1991, when the allies did nothing to save rebels in the south of Iraq from vicious repression by the regime, taken into account. Washington might know that it was not going to let the same thing happen again, but the opponents of Hussein who rose and saw their colleagues killed could hardly be expected to count on a different outcome and forget the past.
Taking such considerations into account might have seemed elementary matters. The vast resources of the U.S. intelligence agencies might, one can only think, have pointed to the ambiguous nature of what lay ahead. But the administration was filled with its own sense of manifest destiny, of the power of its arms and the rightness of its cause.
The outcome envisaged by the occupants of the White House and Pentagon seemed to them so inevitable, and so right, that caution and second thoughts were not in the order of the day. Hence the psychological problem that built up as the advance slowed down.
Instead of a long distance runner gradually building up to the final spurt to the tape, U.S. ground forces seemed like a sprinter who found that the finishing line was only the start of another lap. The extent of American power and technology is such that it will, no doubt, be able to undertake that new challenge after a suitable pause for breath. But the basic paradox that the strong self-belief necessary to launch such a war brings with it the perils of overconfidence has changed the perception of the conflict for many.
U.S. President George W. Bush and those around him still have faith in the manifest destiny of their nation. But, as had been shown through the past four decades, this needs to be tempered with a realization that national self-confidence is not enough to win the multifaceted wars of our age. Whatever happens in the battle for Baghdad, America will still believe in the message it has for the world. The danger facing it is that the way it seeks to spread that message may sabotage the destiny it seeks.
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