For the past two years, the right has alleged that President Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism, which holds that America plays a unique role in the world, defined by National Review’s Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru as an “exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.”
After Obama’s speech last night justifying the intervention in Libya, anyone who alleges the president doesn’t believe this deserves to be laughed out of town.
Obama’s rhetorical justification of intervention in Libya specifically cites this role as a defender of freedom by force if necessary:
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.
There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security – responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.
The “American Exceptionalism” smear has always been based on a false premise, one meant more to retroactively confirm conservatives’ suspicion of Obama’s “otherness” than support an intellectual argument. Conservatives largely base their diagnosis on a truncated quote from an Obama speech in which he stated: “I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” They leave out the part where Obama explicitly went on to defend American Exceptionalism.
To be sure, there are key differences between Obama’s interpretation of American Exceptionalism and the interpretation that many conservatives offer for what it should mean. Obama, unlike his predecessor, does not take American Exceptionalism as a blanket justification for unilateral military action. As he put it last night: “American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves.”
Conservatives seem to believe that American Exceptionalism justifies America doing whatever it wants in the world. By contrast, Obama — at least rhetorically — emphasizes that being exceptional is a standard to meet, not a license for America to capriciously enforce its will upon others. Where conservatives sometimes refuse to acknowledge that there are limits to American power, Obama acknowledged: “The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that.”
Whatever the substantive differences between Obama and his conservative critics on the topic of American Exceptionalism, the notion that Obama has refused to acknowledge or denied outright America’s unique role in the world has been permanently laid to rest.