Anti-communist hysteria during the Cold War led the government of the United States to project a conceptual framework in which communism was envisioned as a worldwide threat to freedom and democracy. But even countries with authoritarian governments that were not characterized by freedom and democracy could be enlisted in the worldwide struggle against communism, provided that they were officially anti-communist. Of course in reality communism was not as monolithic as it was imagined to be, as the differences between the former Soviet Union and China showed.
As a result of the eagerness of many anti-communist Americans to fight against imagined monolithic communism, the long-standing American sense of American exceptionalism was expanded during the Cold War to include the anti-communist struggle against worldwide monolithic communism.
But when the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, this collapse of the "evil empire" that President Reagan had referred to did not necessarily lead to the collapse of the expanded sense of American exceptionalism that the anti-communist struggle had produced during the Cold War, especially not in movement conservatism.
More recently, under President George W. Bush, Islamist terrorists were substituted for communists as the new evil-doers to be feared. In this way, he revived the expanded sense of American exceptionalism from the Cold War as he declared a general war on terrorism and declared actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
During the Cold War, anti-communist hysteria in the United States had led to wars in Korea and Vietnam in the effort to combat the spread of communism in those countries. In a similar way, anti-terrorist hysteria led President Bush to start wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as the United States used the expanded sense of American exceptionalism to lead the anti-communist wars in Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War, so too President Bush used the expanded sense of American exceptionalism to lead the anti-terrorist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it turns out that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, he was undoubtedly a brutal dictator in Iraq.
PRESIDENT OBAMA'S VIEW OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
Next, I want to turn to the question that Edward Luce of the FINANCIAL TIMES of London asked President Obama regarding American exceptionalism and his response. The exchange occurred in a news conference during the question-and-answer session following a presentation by President Obama in Strasbourg, France on April 4, 2009. My source for the following quotations from the exchange is the transcript posted by the White House.