We Americans came not from a revolution but from an evolution.
That is in large part why our so-called revolution produced success while most throughout history did not. We came as much from the Magna Carta as from our own doings, as much from 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 evolution founded the greatest country the world has ever seen. That was true in every element of power and in the uniqueness that makes us great, our constant striving for "a more perfect union" and, as we do so, our open arms for the other peoples of the world "yearning to be free."
As Alexis de Tocqueville once said: "America is great because she is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."
In January 2001, with the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, America set on a path to cease being good; America became a revolutionary nation, a radical republic. If our country continues on this path, it will cease to be great - as happened to all great powers before it, without exception.
From the Kyoto accords to the International Criminal Court, from torture and cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners to rendition of innocent civilians, from illegal domestic surveillance to lies about leaking, from energy ineptitude to denial of global warming, from cherry-picking intelligence to appointing a martinet and a tyrant to run the Defense Department, the Bush administration, in the name of fighting terrorism, has put America on the radical path to ruin.
Unprecedented interpretations of the Constitution that holds the president as commander in chief to be all-powerful and without checks and balances marks the hubris and unparalleled radicalism of this administration.
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 that will weigh upon their generations like a ball and chain around every neck. Imagine owing $150,000 from the cradle. That is radical irresponsibility.
This administration has expanded government - creation of the Homeland Security Department alone puts it in the record books - and government intrusiveness. It has brought a new level of sleaze and corruption to Washington (difficult to do, to be sure). And it has done the impossible in war-waging: put in motion a conflict in Iraq that in terms of colossal incompetence, civilian and military, and unbridled arrogance portends to top the Vietnam era, a truly radical feat.
In Eugene Jarecki's documentary Why We Fight, Richard Perle, head theoretician for the neo-Jacobins who masquerade under the title "neoconservatives," claims that America was changed forever by 9/11. He tells us that those attacks are responsible for all this radicalism. The Jacobins were members of a radical political club during the French Revolution that instituted brutal repression in what became known as the "reign of terror."
Mr. 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, as if he were our king. If he's correct, then our country is as spent as was Rome, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain and a host of other great powers before each toppled from the mountain.
Mr. Perle is not correct.
First, it was Mr. 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 Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia said as the Senate failed to debate in the run-up to the Iraq war, was "ominously, ominously, dreadfully silent."
Second, people such as Mr. 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. Robespierre was a leader of the reign of terror.
We can turn back; moreover, we must if the world is to continue on a trajectory of more freedom and more prosperity for increasing numbers of people. Without American leadership - the good America - the world cannot progress.
If we are 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. I imagine the feeling to be something akin to what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower felt moments before the invasion of Normandy began June 6, 1944.
Congress can awaken and discover that the Constitution is correct, that Congress is in fact a separate and equal branch of government. 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 precipitate 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 since the Magna Carta have we been radicals.
Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a visiting professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell from 2002 to 2005.
Copyright © 2006, The Baltimore Sun