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Who Lost the World? How the Libya Attack Exposed the Bipartisan Belief in American Domination of the Globe

A tragic but isolated incident at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has become a pivotal issue in the election because of the idea that America has a right to own the world and control every place in it.

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The debate between Republicans and Democrats wasn’t about goals in the Middle East, where support for autocratic friends like  Saudi Arabia andBahrain is assumed, and both sides agree on the need for democratic elections, religious pluralism, a free press, empowering women, strengthening free enterprise capitalism, and destroying Islamist terrorists.

More broadly, both sides agree, as they have for decades, that Washington’s overriding foreign policy goal must be to shape history, control the world, and make it mirror American values and serve American interests. This mythic vision of American foreign policy is a rare example of long-term bipartisan consensus.

When I call it myth, I don’t mean it’s a lie. I mean it’s  a foundational narrativeof American power that expresses our most basic assumptions about the world, a story in which every nation on the planet is, theoretically, ours to lose.

To most Americans (though not to much of the rest of the world), this narrative does not reflect sheer hubris and intoxication with imperial power. It’s just good common sense. Throughout our history, at the heart of the dominant national mythology has been the assumption that the U.S. should be the world’s “locomotive” and all the other nations “the caboose” (as President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, once said).  The reason for this was simple (at least to Americans): we were the first and greatest nation founded on the universal moral truths that are supposedly self-evident to any reasonable person.

Sure, controlling the world would serve our self-interest in all sorts of tangible ways. However, our primary self-interest, so the myth maintains, always was and always will be the moral improvement -- perhaps even perfection -- of the entire world. By serving ourselves we serve all humanity.

The Fiercest Political Battle of All

The only question worth debating, then, is how we can use our preponderant power and wealth most shrewdly to maintain effective control. Most Americans expect their president to know the answer. At the same time, most Americans worry that he might not.  A more recent pillar of the bipartisan narrative, the  myth of homeland insecurity, suggests the opposite. 

According to that myth, no matter how much military strength we have or control we exert, there is always “a rising tide of tumult” somewhere that threatens our national security. At every moment, somewhere in the world, we have something crucial to lose.  The name of the threat can change with surprising ease. But the peril must always be there. It’s essential to the story.

And that story, in turn, is now essential to every presidential contest. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd  once wrote, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?” (Think of Ronald Reagan and  the Iran captivity tale or George W. Bush  and 9/11.) If one candidate is the incumbent, the question becomes: Has he been a strong enough father to control the world and thereby protect the house?

Every challenger plays on that anxiety, picking the most obvious or convenient example of the day as a hook on which to hang the perennial charges of weakness and peril. Since the “Who lost China?” days, Republicans have played this card  especially skillfully.

This year it seemed that a Democrat who  “surged” in Afghanistan, killed bin Laden, and  personally ran a drone assassination campaign from the White House had, for once, successfully protected his right flank against the predictable GOP attack. Then fate sent the Libyan killings to the Romney campaign, the newsrooms, and a big portion of the American public. Give Romney’s people credit: they sensed the opportunity from day one.

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