Turning the exceptionalism debate on its ear

Updated
Turning the exceptionalism debate on its ear
Turning the exceptionalism debate on its ear
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For much of President Obama’s first term, when conservatives weren’t questioning President Obama’s citizenship, patriotism, or affinity for capitalism, they complained loudly and frequently about the president’s commitment to “American exceptionalism.”

After last night, the criticisms look pretty silly. Obama has not only embraced the principle, he’s now begun using it as a key part of his rationale in confronting Syria.

The right’s rhetoric on this has never really made any sense, but it was a Republican staple for years. Throughout the 2012 campaign, in nearly every stump speech he delivered, Mitt Romney insisted that Obama thinks “America’s just another nation with a flag.”

I wonder if conservatives noticed the not-so-subtle theme in the president’s remarks to the nation on Syria.

“My fellow Americans, 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. […]

“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.”

After years in which Republicans expressed exasperation over the president and his indifference towards exceptionalism – Kathleen Parker, I’m looking in your direction – Obama’s presentation to the nation at times boiled down to a simple proposition: the United States has to act because we’re the United States. It’s what we do. It’s the burden that comes with being a superpower.

We can’t look the other way, the argument goes, because America isn’t just another nation with a flag.

Of course, this may not be an especially persuasive argument to skeptics of military intervention. Sure, we have the burden of leadership, but that doesn’t mean that every mission is wise and every strike will advance our national security interests.

Indeed, for many skeptics of the use of force in Syria, whether or not America is “exceptional” is irrelevant. The questions are far more practical: would intervention make conditions in Syria better? How? For how long?

To this extent, the president’s argument was effectively more of a challenge to the right – if you embrace American exceptionalism, and you accept that Syria has used chemical weapons to massacre civilians, then you can’t just throw up your arms and expect some other country to step up.

I have no idea whether this will resonate, but here’s hoping the exceptionalism criticism joins the birther conspiracy theory in the folder marked “Obama smears no one should take seriously.”

Foreign Policy, Barack Obama and Syria

Turning the exceptionalism debate on its ear

Updated