The American Century is a morality tale. It instructs and inspires but also warns. It tells of how Americans, having lost their innocence on Dec. 7, 1941, rose up in righteous anger to smite a succession of evildoers. The American Century began when the nation finally embraced its providentially assigned mission to spread liberty around the world. Present-day adherents to this school--self-described liberals like Peter Beinart no less than self-described conservatives like William Kristol--do not doubt that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 simply inaugurated the next phase of this grand undertaking. Absent a failure of nerve on the part of the American people--the bogeyman of isolationism always lurks nearby--final victory in the global war on terror is certain to be ours, thereby securing the utopia of permanent U.S. global dominion. The story of the American Century, endlessly reiterated by members of the political elite, has become our substitute for history.
In the opposing camp are those who credit America's rise to power to something other than righteousness and a dedication to liberty for all. It was not righteousness that bought Louisiana, took California, annexed Hawaii, seized the Philippines, and converted the Caribbean into an American lake. Nor did past administrations collaborate with Stalin, court the Saudi royals, depose Mossadegh, befriend Somoza, arrange the overthrow of Diem, court Mao, and tilt in favor of Saddam against the ayatollahs because of our devotion to democracy and human rights.