U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama’s Exceptionalism Is Unexceptional

american-exceptionalism-sequester-defense-military-spending-300x225“Most of us have this vision of a 21st century world with the triumph of peace and prosperity and personal freedom; with the respect for the integrity of ethnic, racial and religious minorities; within a framework of shared values, shared power, shared plenty; making common cause against disease and environmental degradation across national lines, against terror, organized crime, weapons of mass destruction. This vision, ironically, is threatened by the oldest demon of human society — our vulnerability to hatred of the other. In the face of that, we cannot be indifferent, at home or abroad. That is why we are in…

Kosovo,” said President Bill Clinton said in April 1999 following a lecture by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel entitled, “Lessons Learned from a Violent Century.”  We could just insert another country into Clinton statement and we would not notice much of a difference.

Of course, a few nights ago President Obama did basically that.  He argued for military involvement in the war that rages in Syria.  Sounding much like the explainer-chief Bill Clinton, Obama argued:

For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.

And so, to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.

Indeed, I’d ask every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack, and then ask: What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way?

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.” Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.

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.

Russia’s bellicose and dictatorial president Vladimir Putin lectured the American president on the inherent equality of all people.  America is not exceptional, Putin suggested, and thus does not have the authority, God-given or otherwise, to decide when and where to intervene in the world.  Though the Russian president did offer a litany of American sins that, we might conclude, makes the United States exceptionally awful to the rest of the world. And while we might be tempted to dismiss appeals to international law and good will from the man who imprisoned Pussy Riot, he has pointed out a glaring problem of exceptionalism in general–if a nation claims to be exceptional (and most do in some way), what or who counters and questions the hubris born of exceptionalist notions?

It is not enough to say, as Putin does, that because America is just another nation it can’t act in Syria.  The United States is, in many ways, not just another nation.  But the fact that it can bring military might to bear in many regions of the world in a way that no other country can does not make the notion “might makes right” any closer to being acceptable.

In a piece from Andrew Bacevich at TomDispatch, our contemporary version of H.L. Mencken meets Walter Lippmann suggests that Obama’s willingness to let Congress debate military action against Syria offers a moment to visit the Authorization to Use Military Force, the act which allowed Afghanistan and Iraq to be fought with little oversight.  But now there is a president who, perhaps strategically, has placed before the people’s representatives an opportunity to review the militarization of the American mission.  As Bacevich contends, to deal with Syria in any meaningful way “means almost unavoidably confronting this simple question: How are we doing?  To state the matter directly, all these years later, given all the ordnance expended, all the toing-and-froing of U.S. forces, and all the lives lost or shattered along the way, is mission accomplishment anywhere in sight?  Or have U.S. troops — the objects of such putative love and admiration on the part of the American people — been engaged over the past 30-plus years in a fool’s errand?  How members cast their votes on the Syrian AUMF will signal their answer — and by extension the nation’s answer — to that question.”

Is America exceptional?  Sure it is, in ways that can be measured and felt and, just as important but rarely considered, DEBATED.  The drama of military action has, for far too long, been isolated to the use of military hardware; it needs to include the people who pay for it and they should defend or deny it.  But in doing so, these representatives will need to contend with the tradition that Clinton made plain and Obama has appealed to; they will need to ask not only “how are we doing” but, as Bacevich, what has become of an American mission.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Well thought out post (not surprisingly!). I wonder if the moment we’re in now has parallels with the United States after our withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973? Americans began to question our mission in the world, President Carter came in with a foreign policy more focused on human rights (albeit not consistent, but whose foreign policy is?), then the foreign policy crises of 1979-80, Ronald Reagan’s election, and a slumping economy all contributed to end that moment.

    It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, and more importantly, how it affects both President Obama’s foreign policy objectives the rest of his second term and the debates over foreign policy in 2016–and beyond.

  2. Robert, thanks for commenting (and for your posts!). I have been thinking about your challenge to the notion of a civil religion absent the patriotism we had in the immediate post-9/11 period. One feature missing from the conflict with Syria is that Americans are not being asked to sacrifice in almost any way. Obama gestured toward the abstract notion of sacrifice that the military has become synonymous with, but Americans don’t feel patriotic about cruise missiles or, evidently, retaliating in the name of dead Syrians. I don’t mean to sound cynical or flippant about that feeling–Obama’s point is similar to Clinton’s which was similar to Carter’s, the U.S. is among the very few nations that can express its outrage through serious military strikes.

    So while we know that the foreign policy wonks are always at work devising the next Grand Strategy (all George Kennans-in-waiting), the debate in public will look different minus an injection of patriotism. But it seems to me that Obama hopes to attach American civil religion to sense of doing what is just in the world even if such action does not involve the emotional pull of our troops sacrificing for the rest of us.

  3. Thoughts:

    (1) If Congress disapproves (via voted down measures) of a military intervention, will Obama abide by that decision? Based on his speech earlier this week, I’m not so sure. Aside: There appears to be a new book on presidential war powers that might provide insight (if not answers) on our present situation: Andrew J. Polsky, *Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War (Oxford, 2012). The book received a very positive review from John Prados in the current issue of JAH (Sept. 2013, p. 576).

    (2) This point nails some of my, ahem, reservations about Putin’s editorial. I wonder how often editorials by Russian (or USSR) leaders have appeared in The Grey Lady?

    (3) I love Ray’s imperative that America’s exceptional nature (and I take that for granted, though not in sweeping arrogant ways) should be debated every time it’s invoked. If we have some exceptional traits and abilities, let’s bring the entire electorate to bear on how they apply in any current situation.

    (4) One of the lessons from Polsky’s book, as covered by Prados, is that all means (force, diplomacy, etc.) should be considered relevant to the most desired end (“plan backward from desired outcomes”). The possible problem here is either that our end is too limited to sell, or that the president’s end differs from the public’s desired goals. This is directly related to Bacevich’s question about our mission. – TL

  4. I’d never thought of Bacevich as “our contemporary version of H.L. Mencken meets Walter Lippmann.”

    Lippmann was the epitome of an establishment figure, even when he was disagreeing with the foreign-policy establishment or with a particular administration (e.g. Johnson over Vietnam). Bacevich is more critical of the use of U.S. military power, as a general matter, than I think Lippmann probably ever was (though there were specific cases, eg Vietnam, where he opposed its use). Adding Mencken doesn’t really make the comparison a lot more apt, at least not for me, but this is subjective and others’ mileage may vary, as they say.

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