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Libya, American Exceptionalism and John Quincy Adams

Posted: 06/30/11 02:48 PM ET

Much of the Obama Presidency has united conservatives. The Republican Party, seemingly doomed only a few years ago, has been able to quickly revive itself in a unified chorus of opposition to the Obama brand of liberalism.

However, the Obama Administration's decision to intervene in Libya has exposed a sizeable intellectual divide within the American right. On one hand, neoconservatives stress the importance of an active international commitment. Men like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Karl Rove have strongly supported the idea of intervention in Libya, although critical of the President's means.

On the other hand, a new spirit of restraint seems to characterize a sizable portion of conservatives. Without a vital national interest in play, conservatives from George Will to Michele Bachmann have rejected the rationale justifying Libyan action. John Boehner put it simply: "If it's not in the national security interests of our country to be involved in another country, then we shouldn't do it."

Beyond the immediate implications of tactical policy, conservatives are grappling with a much larger choice of ideology. The right is entering into, whether they realize it or not, a referendum on the definition of American Exceptionalism.

Conservatives have largely held that American Exceptionalism is an active burden. Irving Kristol famously explained that, "The United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal." Kristol's brand of Exceptionalism states that, fundamentally, our nation, mindful of its power and moral code, has tangible responsibilities beyond our borders.

But the failure of the Obama administration to convince conservatives of their humanitarian-based justification for Libya raises a challenge to Kristol's line of reasoning: Can America remain exceptional if governed solely by self-interest? Is it enough to be a "shining city on a hill" or must we recognize that our power necessitates external responsibilities?

As Republicans grapple with this question, illumination may be found in the words of our sixth president -- John Quincy Adams. Though not remembered for much beyond his name and rarely cited today by conservatives, Adams eloquently addressed these very issues. According to Adams, the above question poses not only a false choice, but also offers the pretense to misguided action.

It's important to first note Adams' reverence for America and its ideals. Historian Sean Mattie explained in his essay, John Quincy Adams and Modern Conservatism that, "Adams argued, the Declaration and the Constitution -- transcendent law and organic law -- are the legacy of Americans as a moral and free people. To Adams, this is what ought to be conserved." Adams himself affirmed the American commitment to its highest creeds: "She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights."

One would think that this reverence would lead to a perceived moral imperative abroad. However, Adams held quite the opposite view. And it's not that he was without opportunity. The Greek War of Independence, pitting the West against the control of an Islamic power, clearly provided an opportunity for American involvement. Nevertheless, Adams cautioned action and urged restraint.

To Adams, our responsibility was as an example, not a facilitator: "Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be... But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Adams illustrated these monsters as ever-present facets of history, whose perpetual existence will only destroy those set to vanquish them. "Even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart," America, to Adams, must keep to its shores.

Today, people of any persuasion -- from the various brands of conservatives to those who deny the very existence of American Exceptionalism - can draw from the arguments of Adams; Not necessarily from the substance of his points, but from their applicability. This situational parallel, 180 years removed, elucidates that the practical value of history lies as a guide to the recurring problems of man. Perhaps Adams is wrong, but some of his advice still holds true: "Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!"