12 September 2013

Obama's Exceptionalism

From an early point in his presidency, Barack Obama has been criticized by Republicans for a perceived lack of faith in American exceptionalism. They focus on his answer to a press-conference question on the subject, in which the President noted that many countries believe themselves exceptional. For many Republicans, such an observation missed the point, which is that the U.S. is objectively exceptional, a country uniquely qualified by its commitment to freedom and limited government to take a leadership role in global affairs, if not uniquely obliged to defend freedom worldwide, wherever it is threatened by tyranny. For jingoists, to deny exceptionalism is to believe that the U.S. is no better than other nations, which is the same as saying that free people are no better than tyrants or their slaves. In international affairs, exceptionalism is asserted on the assumption that the U.S. should never have to answer to tyrants, while the U.N. is resented because it presumes equality between tyrannies and free countries. The U.S. may enjoy the veto power to thwart a consensus of nations, but so do Russia and China, which defeats the purpose as far as many Americans are concerned. From this perspective, for a President to deny exceptionalism is to say that the U.S. should submit to the whims of tyrants, which is tantamount to surrendering the world to tyranny.

The problem with this Republican critique is that Obama has always affirmed that the U.S. is exceptional; such a view isn't incompatible with the belief that many if not all countries are exceptional. This explanation won't satisfy Americans who really want affirmations of American supremacy, but they have less to complain about after the President's speech on the Syrian crisis. Obama invoked exceptionalism in the final paragraph of the speech, and it's the exceptionalism of American entitlement, the assertion of an exceptional prerogative, regardless of the preliminary disclaimer.

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. 

What makes America different? What makes America exceptional? As far as I can tell from this paragraph, it is that we can do something, and so we have a right to do it. Policing the entire globe effectively may be beyond our means, but the aspiration to do so is not beyond our rights. If humility comes into it, it's a matter of knowing the limits of our ability, not the limits of our prerogative.

Such an assertion of exceptionalism may still not satisfy jingoists who want plain assertions of American moral superiority, but it's bad enough as it is. Some Americans want to believe that our values make us exceptional, but Obama seems to be saying that our power makes us so. This is the exceptionalism of the Clintons and Madeline Albright, the people who asked why the U.S. had such a massive military if we weren't going to use it, and answered the question by using it. Restating this has earned Obama praise from one quarter. This is Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, who still thinks Obama is doing too little, too late:

The phrase “American Exceptionalism” is often a demagogic expedient. It suggests that America is particularly beloved by God –more so than any other nation. It is poppycock, rhetorical cocaine for conservatives. But tonight Obama employed it in a sensible way: America is exceptional because we have the wherewith all to stop the killing and deal harshly with the killer.

If the results are the same without resort to "rhetorical cocaine," then Cohen's is the proverbial distinction without a difference. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The American people are exceptional at being gullible; in allowing ourselves, year after year, to be bamboozled by grifters, grafters and cowardly warmongers who are happy to shed American blood for profit.

America will not be truly an "exceptional" nation in any sense until we have expunged the merchants of death from our midst. Until we are willing to stand together, as Americans, and take our government back from the liars and thieves who have convinced us of their necessity; and from their corporate and special interest masters.