As Americans struggle to find an answer to the serious problems in Iraq, larger and broader questions beckon. How did we wind up in Iraq in the first place? Some argue that we were too aggressive and self-righteous in promoting our principles, too meddlesome, too arrogant in seeking to transform the world, too quick to intervene militarily in crises far from our shores and remote from our interests. If the United States would only change its approach to the world, if it understood the virtues of limits, modesty and humility, we could avoid foreign policy debacles and the world would be a safer place.
This is actually a very old debate, which Americans have thrashed out in every generation. The expansive, idealistic, interventionist approach to the world has deep roots in the American character, going back to the nation's founding and the universal principles of liberalism embedded in the Declaration of Independence. As George Will once put it, the "messianic impulse" has been "a constant of America's national character, and a component of American patriotism."
But no less constant has been opposition to this grand vision, which critics since the nation's founding era have regarded as a recipe for endless war abroad and the undoing of American democracy at home.
...The problem for those who have tried to steer the United States away from its long history of expansiveness, then and now, is that Americans' belief in the possibility of global transformation -- the "messianic" impulse -- is and always has been the more dominant strain in the nation's character. It is rooted in the nation's founding principles and is the hearty offspring of the marriage between Americans' driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness...
Today many hope and believe that the difficulties in Iraq will turn Americans once and for all against ambition and messianism in the world. History is not on their side.