On Monday night, March 28, President Obama defended American intervention in the Libyan civil war. Many pundits had anticipated the president’s remarks as a signal of what might come to be called, the “Obama Doctrine.” The president, though, disappointed those hopes. His speech became noteworthy for what it did not address as much for what it did. For many observers, Obama’s unwillingness to exert leadership over the multi-national force taking on Moammar Gaddafi made his position and that of the United States rather, well, unexceptional. The U.S. was just like any other member of a coalition.
Such action made Josef Joffe, the all-purpose pro-America European pundit, declare an end to American Exceptionalism. Joffe wrote in the New York Times that the Obama Doctrine, if there really is one, offers the world a vision of “America Lite.” “There is nothing wrong with bringing ends in line with means and interest,” Joffe allowed. “It’s the American way — and the way of all great powers. And yet. The Obama doctrine is to Truman et al. like chardonnay to moonshine: pleasing to the palate and easy on the blood, but without punch and power — kind of un-American, isn’t it?”
Is it? Or better, what is American about our understanding of American Exceptionalism?
We have discussed this issue before on this blog and will do so at the 2011 conference. But there was a convergence this past week that made me wonder how many times we will declare the end of American Exceptionalism.
The President delivered his “unexceptionalism” speech the same week as Rolling Stone released a special issue on “The Kill Team.” For those unacquainted with this report, Rolling Stone exposed an official investigation into a particular American army platoon in Afghanistan and the vile campaign of murder some of its soldiers engaged in. These soldiers have been accused on hunting Afghanistan civilians for sport. The photographs and videos posted on Rolling Stone‘s website accompany the story of this crime.
While researching the American relationship to war since 1945–primarily how political and theological leaders led Americans in a debate over how war shapes their relationship to the nation–the role soldiers play in defining what America is has of course changed over time. Not surprisingly, other than the initial burst of euphoria for returning troops following World War II, there had been little effort to glorify the American soldier as a significant representative of American power and ideals.
It seems to me that perception changed most dramatically in mid-1990s. Certainly Reagan talked big about the military, and George H.W. Bush hoped the Gulf War would cleanse the nation and its military of the malaise created by Vietnam. But it was the rise of the third generation of neocons (as Justin Vaisse calls them in his book) that remade the American soldier into the symbol of American Exceptionalism–or in my terms, the medieval Jesuits of a modern American theology of exceptionalism.
Their point was that throughout the 1990s, the American public had been distracted—had been allowed to grow distracted—by the lack of a coherent martial vision. Kagan and Kristol believed that the American military was not some unfortunate appendage of a peace-loving, civic polis, but an essential branch of the American system of ideals. “It is foolish to imagine” they wrote, “that the Untied States can lead the world effectively while the overwhelming majority of the population neither understands nor is involved, in any real way, with its international mission.” They clearly believed that the military stood as the sole institution in American public life that should command universal admiration. Americans needed to be reminded, educated, and trained, Kagan and Kristol claimed, in “military virtues.”
Americans need moral clarity–an activist foreign policy would remoralize America itself. America need war.
I don’t know if Obama reminded Americans that they are not immune to the moral catastrophes of war. Like all other presidents before him, he praised and thanked the military for, yet again, taking on the burdens of war and for doing their jobs with courage. Yet Joffe saw Obama’s speech as cautious, an abdication of America’s “claim to world power and responsibility.” Truly, an activist foreign policy has made America an exceptional nation, but surely we should remember that such activism comes with consequences that can be considered exceptional in ways that are possibly heroic and possibly horrific. If we can claim heroism as American, must we not also claim the horror? This has indeed been a week to end American exceptionalism, again.