Today’s morning headlines were full of violence in Syria, Bahrain, Libya, and the threat of new conflict in Egypt, as popular uprisings against entrenched dictatorships continue to grow. As the U.S. tries to somehow avoid a lead role in the international intervention in Libya, the question looms regarding its responsibility to other nations whose people yearn to be free—or at least freer. As important as what America ultimately decides to do will be for the futures of these nations, the U.S. economy, and foreign relations, something far more important is at stake. These difficult choices once again challenge the United States to affirm or reject its ideals, the very essence of what has made America what it is.
We have come to these crossroads four times before. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln had the opportunity to avoid terrible bloodshed and the risk of national destruction by allowing the Southern states to peacefully secede, forming a new and rival nation fueled by slavery. He declined, opting instead to fight to build a single nation of shared commitment to human rights and freedom that could become a force for good in the world. In the 1930’s, isolationist sentiments in the U.S. caused the U.S. government to close its eyes to the plight of European Jews and to tolerate the aggression of Adolf Hitler. President Franklin D. Roosevelt risked certain impeachment by defying Congress and offering clandestine assistance to Britain and Russia in the hopes that they could keep Hitler contained until the American public saw the light, which they did once Pearl Harbor was attacked. Then, in the wake of World War II, the United States looked beyond its borders and self-interest to help rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan.
The fourth and most recent defining moment for the U.S. arrived with the Cold War. America actively opposed, confronted and challenged the spread of authoritarian world Communism for more than half a century, at great cost and risk. Again, many would have had us take the safe and self-interested route, but in the end the United States, and its core values, prevailed.
Now comes, I believe, the fifth such challenge, one that is, like its predecessors, an epic test of ethics, courage, and integrity. Will America, facing wrenching problems of its own, commit treasure, human life, leadership and passion to the cause of freedom in the most volatile part of the world, knowing well that freedom may well prove to be freedom to oppose American interests and values?
Today’s challenge is daunting in different ways than the others, though no more than they. For the first time in its history, America has a Chief Executive who is uncomfortable with the concept of American exceptionalism, the belief that this country is innately different, and better, than other nations. There are many reasons for Obama’s doubts, none of them sinister, but if you designed a computer program that combined all the perfect influences to create a U.S. President ambivalent to exceptionalism, it would produce Barack Obama.
As the product of multinational and multicultural roots, he is inclined to see America as one nation of many. As a black man, he is closer than most to America’s greatest moral failing, its enslavement, abuse and mistreatment of African-Americans. As a member of his generation, he grew up in the post-Vietnam, Watergate era when trust in American traditions and institutions began to decline, accelerated by the jaundiced histories of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, among others. As a progressive and grass-roots political organizer, he took office carrying his own distrust of the sturdy economic engine that has driven America’s success, capitalism, following one of the business sector’s worst betrayals of its public duty.
America is exceptional. It is exceptional because alone among nations, it was created to embody bold ideas about the nature of humanity and its aspirations. The United States has dual missions, equal in primacy, clearly articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the words of Lincoln. There is nothing remarkable about one of the two missions, to seek peace, prosperity, opportunity, health, welfare and happiness for its own populace—most nations at least claim to be dedicated to those goals. The other, however, is unique. The United States is also committed to principles, including the right of all human beings to be free, able to take command of their own lives, and to have a voice in their own government.
That mission makes the United States exceptional.
Exceptionalism does not mean, and never has meant, that the United States is perfect, free of flaws, or incapable of doing great wrongs and causing great harm. It does not mean that its leaders, representatives and prominent figures are always wise, or honest, or worthy of America’s aspirations. Achieving missions requires choice and action, and choices and action leads to mistakes. One of America’s persistent cultural characteristics is that it is bold, proactive, and willing to accept risk, including the risk of making enemies and failing at its initiatives. After all the carnage, scandals, amends, reparations and apologies, the core principles articulated by Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln still stand, along with the United States’ obligation to embody, protect, and promote them.
The two extremes of the American political spectrum disavow this aspect of our saga. The far Left doesn’t believe that America actually embodies these ideals; the far Right argues that only American self-interest should matter. These groups, in various forms and guises, have always provided the opposition in those critical times when the United States has had to consider whether “national interest” means “sacrificing for the universal ideals of freedom and human rights.”
Is this such a time? Our government has a duty not to fail its mission of self-preservation, security and prosperity by rashly or incompetently pursuing its grander one, for a weak America cannot succeed in substance or ideals. The refusal of the Bush Administration to diligently finance, with taxes and domestic budget cuts, its idealistic removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has left the U.S. handicapped now as it must decide whether to remove slightly less brutal despots like Gaddafi and Assad to give democracy a chance in Libya and Syria. Unlike the post-WWII era, when America was wealthy and confident enough to take on major commitments without flinching, there are daunting risks to consider, including the possibility of pushing the nation’s solvency to the breaking point. America has an obligation to stay strong, because if this country cannot be the world’s advocate and champion of freedom, no other nation will. But if America will not take a stand, one comprising actions, not words, at the moment when a whole region’s people are fighting oppression and despotism, can it still claim to be either?
And is a United States that will no longer fight for the freedom of all human beings on the planet still the Unites States? The disavowal of American exceptionalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I don’t think there is a clear right or wrong in resolving this dilemma, or if there is, I am not wise enough to discern it. Still, it is a critical moment requiring a balance, as in all ethical dilemmas, between principles and hard reality. America’s duel missions are pulling in opposite directions, and that can quite literally pull the country apart.