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Manifest Destiny and Mr George W. Bush

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-05

THE name on everyone's lips and minds yesterday was that of George W. Bush of Texas, who handsomely won re-election as the 43rd President of the United States by defeating his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

But for those who believe that all politics mirrors a nation's history and offers better clues its future, three specific names should also be on our minds as Mr Bush claims an impressive new mandate for governance of the world's sole superpower. Two of them were 19th century US presidents, John Tyler, Number 10, and James R. Polk, Number 11. The third name is that of a contemporaneous diplomat and columnist, John Louis O'Sullivan, who fashioned the phrase "Manifest Destiny" to characterize America's expansionist role in that period.

Assumption of that role drove the US - under Presidents Tyler and Polk - to grow territorially by more than 3 million square kilometers, across Texas and New Mexico to California and Oregon. The annexations contributed to a third of present-day continental US territory. Until Mr Bush came along and asserted the doctrine of pre-emptive strike against perceived enemies by occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, it was President Polk who held that the US was entitled to rule as much of the continent as it could acquire. He successfully waged war against Mexico, and acquired for the US most of its present boundaries as a nation.

O'Sullivan wrote that it was America's "Manifest Destiny" to grow territorially. Since his time, that memorable phrase has become a metaphor for America's pro-active engagement in global affairs. In its most benign form - especially during the tragically brief administration of President John F. Kennedy - it meant US involvement in helping poor nations to from centuries of colonial control and overcome poverty.

That's why Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, quite possibly the most successful peacetime American overseas enterprise ever. Thousands of idealistic young men and women went to live in villages in the Third World, spreading education and, coincidentally, engendering good will for America that persists 40 years after Kennedy's initiative.

Kennedy never used "Manifest Destiny" in his felicitous speeches, most of which were drafted by my friend, Mr Theodore C. Sorensen of New York - including Kennedy's most famous phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Mr Sorensen didn't have to turn O'Sullivan phrase - equally memorable in the 19th century - because the underlying assumption of Kennedy's idea of "Manifest Destiny" was that the American role in the world during the Cold War would be one of a superpower that emphasised economic and social development even as it countered the military might and political influence of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Territorial expansion wasn't on Kennedy's agenda. That's why they still hang his pictures in Third World huts, hovels and haciendas.

They are unlikely to similarly invite Mr Bush's visage into their homes - just as President Bush is unlikely to employ the phrase "Manifest Destiny" publicly. If perchance he did in a moment of extreme political elation, he would invite even more wrath from the Islamic world, from developing countries - even the handful who rooted for his return to power - and from traditional allies in Europe and Asia, who already feel that regardless of their sensibilities, Mr Bush indeed is parsing "Manifest Destiny" in his own special way.

That way of parsing O'Sullivan's phrase by Mr Bush is increasingly resented in much of the world because it clearly implies the preponderance not only of American military and political power, but its willingness to export domestic ideology to regions that don't appreciate it and will never accept it. Already yesterday, in talk show after talk show, Christian evangelical fundamentalists -- those five million or so Americans who turned out virtually en bloc across the nation to vote for Mr Bush, a born-again Christian himself - talked fervently of taking on the Islamic heathens and other unbelievers. That's 6 billion people who aren't American evangelical Christians.

In one way or another, Mr Bush will have to satisfy that highly emotive domestic constituency. His agenda of moving the US well to the right has been accomplished - as this week's election showed - through Mr Bush's constant emphasis on family values and morality. The Democrats could never effectively parry his accusation that their party remained mired in 1968, the infamous year that - like 1845 when Texas was annexed by President Polk - represented the nadir of American power because of the failing Vietnam War and, conversely, the apogee of cultural promiscuity introduced by the hippies of the "free love" generation.

But the central thesis of governance in America has long been - from even before the halcyon era of "Manifest Destiny" - that moral values cannot be legislated. Mr Bush and the Right do not subscribe to this historical predicate. The assault on abortion rights, the challenge to poor people's access to affordable health care, and the outright denial of social and financial support to minorities on the grounds that you're poor because you're too lazy to work - these things have steadily escalated over the first four years of the Bush presidency. It may not be actually legislating morality, but it's actually worse: it's governance by narrowly defined criteria of morality.

And now that Mr Bush has this enormous new mandate, his version of what's moral and what's not - supported not so surreptitiously by the evangelical Right - is going to be dramatically exported. His laudable speech yesterday calling for a "healing of wounds" is scarcely heartening; that phrase is de rigueur for every victor in every political race.

What matters is how an American president interprets and implements "Manifest Destiny." It would be ungracious to suggest at his time of triumph that Mr Bush may not look at the non-evangelical world outside his moral kampong more kindly than before, now that his eyes will be on his presidential legacy. But it would be irresponsible to assume that he's going to change - or that his frenzied supporters are going to let that happen. It's scary.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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