chapter  3
25 Pages

Protecting the idea of human rights

Authors who examine America’s national identity often begin by asking what is unique or exceptional about America, a question that has called forth no shortage of answers.1 This chapter, therefore, begins by inquiring into how neoconservatives think about America’s national identity. What are their views on the nature of the American regime and its historic claim to uniqueness and exceptionalism? What aspect of American exceptionalism, in other words, do they endorse and celebrate as distinctly American? The answer, I argue, rests upon the idea of natural rights and human rights. The chapter begins by analyzing the work of several prominent neo-

conservatives who have devoted considerable time to thinking and writing about America’s national identity. I then explain how neoconservatives have attempted to protect the idea that is at the core of America’s sense of nationhood. America, of course, is a diverse country with many competing regional interpretations of the nation’s values. But in discussions on America’s national identity, one can never overlook the importance that Americans attach to the idea of human rights. “No thread runs through the tangle of American politics more clearly than rights,” Michael Zuckert argues (2002: 10). Many of America’s most agonizing debates, both domestic and foreign, have come back to the question of rights. Regardless of whether it is the neoconservative attempt to keep the idea of

human rights from being misconstrued, or their attempt to remind Americans of its historical relevance, neoconservatives have displayed an unflagging commitment to sustaining the central idea that nourishes the belief in American exceptionalism. Yet neoconservatives, I explain, go much further than merely offering a rhetorical defense of what America should stand for in the world. According to the neocons, America’s commitment to human rights imposes its own unique set of obligations. This was evidenced throughout the 1990s when many advocated tougher action to end the intrastate violence taking place in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Throughout this period, neoconservatives were joined by many hawkish

liberals who believed that America should selflessly employ its power in order to put an end to the world’s most egregious human rights violations. The enterprise upon which these intellectuals embarked was made possible by an

overwhelming confidence in the capacity of America to change the world – for the benefit, of course, of the world. Such a belief, I argue, should have been rethought long before America entered Iraq. But it was not. Indeed, Bosnia, despite being vaunted as a success in a large portion of neoconservative and liberal commentary, should have dampened expectations when it came to what America could achieve in intervening in nations ravaged by war and human misery. To this day, though, neoconservatives continue to believe that America’s most compelling national interest is the defense, the preservation, and the advancement, of the liberal democratic idea.