THE BLOG
02/21/2011 05:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

American "Exceptionalism" Led By Example, Not Simply Force

After witnessing the 9/11 attacks, I swore I'd never again live in a home without an American flag standing guard outside the front door. A decade later, I find myself a disillusioned patriot, wondering why so many Americans failed to learn an important and frightening lesson from that horrid day: the monsters who flew those planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, murdering fellow Muslims as well as Christians and Jews, had tacit approval of billions who resent--for right or wrong--America's heavy footprint on the globe.

My legal education requires me to stipulate facts at the outset. As Americans, we enjoy the greatest liberal democratic political system devised by man, one deeply rooted in individual liberty. We benefit from a tattered but mostly intact free market economy, which has provided more than adequate food, clothing and shelter, not just for the rich, but for nearly everyone from a relatively small underclass to a huge middle class.

Indeed, we are an exceptional nation. But this exceptionalism splinters, and does so quickly, when we move from serving as a shining example for others to follow, and instead turn toward enforcing our will and our way of life on the world. It is at this point, we lose our moral authority, sacrificing American lives and critical tax dollars in the process. To dismiss resistance from our foes as a byproduct of ignorance reflects only our own.

This point is made in an exceptional essay at Reason.com, by Terry Michael: "The End of The American Century." Michael reminds readers it was 70 years ago on February 17, 1941, when Henry R. Luce, the Life magazine publisher, coined the phrase, "The American Century," twenty years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned Americans against the threats to liberty of a "military industrial complex."

"The contrast between Eisenhower's historically informed wisdom and Luce's jingoistic missionary zeal," Michael, a libertarian Democrat and former party strategist, writes, "offers an opportunity for serious discourse beyond the empty choices presented by bloated government liberals and big government conservatives. Both 'sides' pretend they want to downsize the fat federal beast, just as they both sell interventionist foreign policy with flag-waving 'support the troops' propaganda." (Full disclosure: I am a 2000 graduate of Terry Michael's "Politics & Journalism Semester" in Washington, which teaches futures political reporters about politics, and welcomes young libertarian and conservative reporters, like I was, as well as liberals.)

In his piece, Michael takes on the K Street lobbyists who "profiteer from a permanent state of empire-building and elective warfare." Republican neo-conservative and Democratic liberal-internationalist critics will doubtless proclaim Michael an isolationist in a global world. But his argument is not one against engagement with other nations. It is a plea for American modesty in dealings with the other six or seven billion people who also call our planet home.

If there is one thing I learned from my days working as an aide in the U.S. Senate, it is that I have much to learn about other nations and cultures. Our media and our way of life have penetrated every corner of the globe. Each misstep is publicized with zeal. To make matters worse, non-state actors and roving terrorist regimes have created one of the most unpredictable, unstable geopolitical environments in history. Any misapplication of military might can have devastating effects on the future of humanity.

America didn't become great by sitting on the sidelines. But the same instincts that sent soldiers into Iraq after 9/11 can now be employed to re-examine our national security priorities. Isolationism simply isn't a choice.

As Michael notes: "Those of us blessed with the classical liberal meme stream inherited from the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason can do the human race a favor by using the Eisenhower and Luce anniversaries as a teaching moment. We can illuminate just how much liberty has been lost due to today's permanent state of warfare, which not only Eisenhower in 1961, but James Madison two centuries earlier, warned against. We can define how Luce's pre-war jingoistic 'American Century' proclamation, in his immodestly named Life magazine, contributed to a post-war sense of New World entitlement. Luce's conceit encouraged Americans to think of ourselves as God's policemen to the world, and to obsess about our right not only to whatever our rapidly expanding middle-class incomes could buy, but also to what politicians could hand out via federal, state, and local taxes and a massive deficit-spending spree."

Once a war hawk, I find myself increasingly more concerned about the prospect of raising our children in a nation where, at birth, they were handed a $45,000 bill as their share of the national debt. I'm worried about a multi-billion dollar drug war that only encourages international drug cartels to continue their violent campaigns. I'm terrified when I listen to my own friends, veterans of our Iraq and Afghanistan efforts, come home disillusioned and without faith in our nation's foreign policy strategy.

In a bipartisan essay in the Washington Post , Congressmen James P. McGovern, D-Mass, and Walter B. Jones, R-NC, argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are "likely to total $4 trillion to $6 trillion." They ask Democratic congressmen, "where is the liberal outrage?" And they challenge GOP and Tea Party Republicans, "Fiscal conservatives should be howling that this war is being financed with borrowed money."

An exceptional but more modest 21st Century America can reduce the burden of debt on our grandchildren and, as Michael writes, increase individual liberty by putting "the individual, not our nation-state, at the center of the universe."

So what are our options now? Can we pack up and leave the Middle East without leaving behind devastating consequences? These are critical questions we must critically examine. To get there, we must unite as liberals and conservatives to start asking serious questions about military spending.

We can no longer rest easy, relying on a century of military greatness to reassure ourselves that the future is ours to keep. It's ours to lose. Let's get lean and feisty once again.

Jessica P. Corry is a Denver attorney and political strategist. She serves as special counsel to Hoban & Feola, LLC and is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Phillips Foundation in Washington, D.C.