In November the author Geoffrey Perret forlornly wandered the talk-show circuit, finding that discussions of his new biography of John F. Kennedy, Jack, were being bumped by war news. It's a shame Perret couldn't have switched to promoting one of his earlier books, first published in 1989 and now out of print—A Country Made by War, to which the mobilization against al Qaeda gave a new and sudden significance. Along with Special Providence (2001), by Walter Russell Mead, it suggests what the government may start looking like as it moves through the first stages of the current war.
The theme connecting the two books is that the United States and foreign observers alike have badly misunderstood the way it conducts diplomacy with—and, when necessary, war against—the rest of the world. Mead says that U.S. political leaders are typically considered to be rubes in international dealings, certainly when compared with their suave Old World counterparts. The blame for this failing is usually placed on our cowboy heritage, the self-absorption of our politics, the limits of our education system and our media, and other factors that make for an insular and sometimes isolationist mentality.
It's all bunk, Mead says. Through the first fifty years of its history the American nation was more or less constantly at war, or negotiating to avoid war, with European powers; and throughout its history it has ambitiously and successfully advanced military, economic, and ideological interests around the globe. Its armed forces were active in North Africa, Latin America, and the South Pacific before Andrew Jackson became President. Marines landed in China and Liberia before the Civil War, and in Korea soon afterward. World War I, which meant either outright defeat or Pyrrhic victory for every other major combatant, laid the foundations for American economic, diplomatic, and, eventually, military pre-eminence—a position that World War II cemented.