“Rising” to Empire, Falling from Grace

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William N. Grigg

“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

This panegyric to what is commonly called “American Exceptionalism” could have been composed by any of a number of GOP-aligned media figures, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, or their legions of local imitators. Those words were actually spoken by Madeleine Albright in 1998, when she was the Clinton administration’s Secretary of State. She was defending the U.S. role in enforcing an embargo on Iraq in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991.

Albright had memorably addressed that issue in a different fashion three years earlier during an interview on the CBS program 60 Minutes.

“We have heard that a half million children have died,” observed interviewer Leslie Stahl. “I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Without challenging the statistics, or displaying even a tremor of remorse, Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

By reconciling Albright’s statements we learn that when “we have to” impose policies that result in the avoidable death, through starvation and disease, of hundreds of thousands of children, “it is because we are America…. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

For some reason, the self-styled seers and visionaries who defended the Iraqi embargo didn’t foresee how that policy, coupled with decades of U.S. meddling in the Middle East, would cultivate and nurture the seeds that bore murderous fruit on September 11, 2001.

To ordinary people not blessed with Albright’s oracular insight, it seemed obvious that some variety of murderous blowback would be the inevitable product of a foreign policy that featured deliberate mass starvation punctuated with bombing raids. However, the custodians of permissible opinion have decreed that history began on the morning of 9/11 – that nothing the U.S. government did prior to that date has any organic connection to the motives and actions of those who carried out the attack (at least as that attack is described in the officially sanctioned narrative). To suggest that Washington’s policies had some relationship to anti-American sentiment in the Middle East is to commit a grave blasphemy against American Exceptionalism – the official creed of the ruling Establishment, irrespective of party.

What makes America exceptional, from this perspective, is not the blessings we have been allotted by Providence, or the individual liberties promised by our country’s founding documents. America is exceptional because of the power of the government that rules us, as manifest in its ability to kill people in distant lands.

That view, once again, is not limited to bellicose left-wing internationalists like Albright. On several occasions, Rush Limbaugh – who, like fellow late-blooming militarist Dick Cheney, had “other priorities” when he was of draft age during Vietnam – has related an anecdote about witnessing a military fly-over during a Super Bowl in the 1980. Aroused by the spectacle to the point of rapture, Limbaugh (by his own account) was moved to exclaim, “How can you see something like that, and be a liberal who hates your country?”


Offensive as it would be to both Limbaugh and Albright, a compelling case can be made that their reflexive militarism is a repudiation of our country’s founding principles. The Framers of the Constitution, painfully familiar with the uses to which large military establishments could be put, never intended for the united States of America (in Congress assembled) to have a standing, centralized army. While they did have the lamentable intention of creating a consolidated central government — and pretty clear ambitions for territorial expansion to the West — they did not entertain grandiose ambitions of policing the world.

The most admirable members of the Founding Generation understood that love of country was not measured by one’s enthusiasm for government-inflicted bloodshed. That’s why Washington’s Farewell Address emphasized both adequate provision for defense and the compelling necessity to avoid entanglement in the affairs of other countries.

“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be,” observed John QuincyAdams in his 1821 Independence Day Address. “But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” (Emphasis added.)

Unlike the supposedly far-seeing Madeleine Albright – who couldn’t foretell how her arrogant endorsement of genocide in 1995 would help catalyze the enmity that led to the devastating 9/11 assault six years later – Adams displayed uncanny foresight in describing the degenerate state of American “patriotism” today, 190 years after he delivered his warning against interventionism: “Patriots” today celebrate force, not liberty.

Today, what Adams and his generation called “Independence Day” is simply called the Fourth of July. Rather than being a celebration of individual liberty, the “Fourth” has become an annual orgy of militarism, often involving saturation-level barrages of propaganda in the form of televised war “movie marathons” and military parades that wouldn’t be out of place in Pyongyang.

Lest it be forgotten, Independence Day originally commemorated an act of insurrection against the “legitimate” government – an incomparably powerful globe-spanning empire on which the sun never set. The men who committed that act of rebellion would probably consider it perverse that they are “honored” by public rituals extolling the imperial power of a government that is more corrupt and oppressive – by several orders of magnitude – than that of George III.

America was unique because of its origins in principled rebellion against lawless rule, and because of a set of founding political instruments that, while imperfect, did provide individuals some protection against government aggression. Those traits that are typically celebrated as tokens of “American Exceptionalism” – an interventionist foreign policy; a Chief Executive with unqualified power to kill, imprison, and torture people at whim; a badly overgrown military establishment – are, in a specific sense, un-American.

A commercial republic in which both citizens and their elected representatives are governed by law, and individual liberty is regarded as the highest political good, would be truly exceptional. A sprawling empire ruled by a corrupt oligarchy that plunders both the national treasury and the resources of distant lands is actually quite commonplace.

 To catch a glimpse of the America that could have been, it’s useful to pay a brief visit to the period between the end of the War for Independence and the mercantilist counter-revolution in Philadelphia that abolished the Articles of Confederation and created a more centralized constitutional Union.

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