Indeed, as David Bromwich notes in this issue, while it is easy to interpret the age of American power from 1945 to 2003 as a narrative of unalloyed good—one that moves seamlessly from the Berlin airlift and the Marshall Plan to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bombing of Yugoslavia and the rise of an independent Kosovo—another, less benignant interpretation is also possible. It would begin with the Vietnam War, move on to the interventions in Central America, followed by the expansion of NATO by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and conclude, for now, with the bungled wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. If Republicans wanted to mount a serious critique of Obama, they would focus not on the peripheral issue of Benghazi but on the fact that his incursion into Libya has further destabilized the Middle East, partly by sending fresh weapons and jihadists into Syria. So far, however, they have indulged in a culture of irresponsibility when it comes to foreign affairs. To promote the notion that Washington can safely and effectively conduct a new round of regime change around the globe isn’t simply mistaken. It’s utterly detached from reality.
As the moralistic fervor of this crew reaches new heights, it would be an error to forget that, as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once observed, “The Anglo-American tradition . . . has long been addicted to the presentation of egoism in the guise of altruism.” And so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington has, more or less, not simply attempted to maintain a preponderance of power but actively nursed the byssine illusion of omnipotence. But the very attempt to establish dominance has undermined it. As Kennan observed at the height of anti-Communist hysteria in 1954, “A foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all.” Wise words, then as now.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.