One thing that is striking about President Obama’s speech tonight was his full-throated call to American Exceptionalism — the idea that intervening in Syria is a reflection of this country’s unique role in the world.
“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,” Obama said near the conclusion of his address. ”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.”
His words were all the more notable given the criticism early in his presidency that he had walked away from the concept, in a news conference during his first trip abroad as commander in chief.
Obama was asked whether he subscribes, as his predecessors did, “to the school of American Exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world.”
His answer, which was often used against him by Republicans: “I believe in American Exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Tonight, however, was not a theoretical proposition. Obama has framed the Syria question as a test of whether a war-weary nation still sees itself as having a unique role in the world.