We Americans came not from a revolution but an evolution. That is in large part why our so-called revolution endured while most throughout history do not. We came as much from Magna Carta as from our own doings, as much from the British common law and parliamentary development as from the Declaration of Independence and Continental Congress.
Unlike the true revolution on the other side of the Atlantic that led to Napoleon’s dictatorship and strife and conflict all across Europe, our revolution founded the greatest country the world has ever seen.
Following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, America became a revolutionary nation, a radical republic. If our country continues on this path, she will cease to be great — like all great powers before her, without exception, have done.
From torture and cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners to rendition of innocent civilians, from illegal domestic surveillance to neglect of due process, from energy ineptitude to denial of global warming, from assassinations across international borders to eavesdropping on its own residents, the George W. Bush-Richard Cheney administration, in the name of fighting terrorism, put America on the radical path to ruin.
Moreover, fiscal profligacy of an order never seen before has brought America trade deficits that boggle the mind and a federal deficit that, when stripped of the gimmickry used to make it appear more tolerable, will leave every child and grandchild in this nation a debt to pay that will weigh upon their generations like a ball and chain around every neck. Imagine, if you will, owing $150,000 from the cradle. That is radical irresponsibility.
The George W. Bush administration, of which I was a part, expanded government with the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the director of national intelligence more extensively than at any time since the creation of the Department of Defense. Moreover, it did the unbelievable, starting three wars and lowering taxes at the same time. These wars — the global war on terror, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq — still simmer and the billions of dollars continue to pour out.
In Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, “Why We Fight”, Richard Perle, head theoretician for the “neo-conservatives” who advocated for the Iraq War, claims America was changed forever by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He tells us that those attacks are responsible for America’s radicalism.
Perle says that we may think we can go back but we cannot. “We are not the same people we were before,” he says emphatically. If he’s correct, then our country is as spent as was Rome, Spain, Holland, Britain and a host of other great powers before each toppled from the mountain.
But Perle is not correct. First, it was Perle and people such as he who put us where we are today, not the terrorists of 9/11. A somnolent Congress assisted — a Congress that, as Sen. Robert Byrd said as the Senate failed to debate in the run-up to the Iraq War, was “ominously, ominously, dreadfully silent.”
Second, people such as Perle do not represent the bulk of Americans, who are anything but radical. Instead, they represent the Robespierres and Napoleons of this world, the neo-Jacobins of today.
America can recover; moreover, the nation must recover if the world is to continue on a trajectory of more freedom and more prosperity for increasing numbers of people. Without American leadership — the real America — the world cannot progress.
If the U.S. is in some way the indispensable nation that a few Americans have said we are, then that is why. And it is no arrogance of power to say it; rather, it is to admit abiding reverence for the way the world works. Such awesome responsibility generates not the swaggering ineptitude of which we have witnessed so much of late, but the abject humility that should flood us when we confront such unprecedented responsibility.
Humility such as Dwight Eisenhower felt moments before the invasion of Normandy began in June of 1944. The general knew he commanded the greatest power in human history; he also knew that power could be squandered almost in a heartbeat on the beaches of France — by chance, by weather, by his own decisions.
The somnolent Congress can awaken as well and discover that the Constitution is correct, that the legislative branch is in fact a separate and equal branch of government. And the American people will find a way to deal with the remainder of the radicals, whether at the ballot box, in the courts or in the Senate.
We can halt the precipitous slide in our standing around the world, convince the majority of the Islamic world that we can and must co-exist — and eventually prosper together — and at the same time confront, confound and defeat the small element in Islam’s midst that lives to murder innocents, Christian, Jew and Muslim alike.
All we need do, in reality, is return to our roots. Never in our almost 800-year history have we been radicals.
Lawrence Wilkerson is distinguished visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell in the first George W. Bush administration. He will speak at the 25th Annual Camden Conference Feb. 17-19 under the title “The U.S. in a 21st Century World: Do We Have What It Takes?” Simultaneous feeds of the program will go to The Grand in Ellsworth, the Hutchinson Center in Belfast and the Strand Theater in Rockland.