Jeremy Cutcher is a political science senior and Mustang Daily liberal columnist.
The last couple weeks have been an historical time for the Middle East. With demonstrations from Tunisia and Jordan to Egypt and Libya, the region is experiencing a mass political uprising against the old regimes notorious for their corruption and oppression. Many have been mostly peaceful (notably Egypt), but some (notably Libya) have been brutal in their suppression of the demonstrations. The violence in Libya has led some to call on the president to take a stronger stance in support of the demonstrators, with neo-con stalwart Bill Kristol calling on the president to use force “when force is used to kill innocent civilians.”
Apparently, the blunders of the Bush years have not resonated with many in this ideological camp. And that is precisely the danger of blind allegiance to the ideology of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism is a quirky notion. In its most fundamental form it says that God created America to spread liberty and democracy across the world (others leave out God and just believe America has a purpose to do so). Unfortunately, the ideology doesn’t specify if we are to do so by our example and our aid or by force, and many seem to like the control the latter purportedly provides us in determining the outcomes.
We all participate in the ideology to some extent. It’s kind of like we’re on Team America and we’re rooting our team on. And it does seem like history will remember America as the founding of a new understanding of political relationships, where self-determination and inalienable rights become integral to who we are as individuals. The problem with any fundamentalist interpretation is that it leads to faulty conclusions that are not based on the reality of the situation.
Three ideas characterized the Bush administration: a fundamentalist interpretation of American exceptionalism, a firm belief in the revolution in military affairs (RMA) and the notion that “deficits don’t matter.” The last one left the American people with huge debts to pay in coming years, while the first two led to a reckless and bombastic foreign policy. The Bush administration, especially Donald Rumsfeld, believed the technological revolution in the latter half of the 20th century fundamentally altered the nature of modern warfare. With new technology such as precision-guided missiles and unmanned drones, the Bush administration believed war efforts could be completed in minimal time with minimal casualties on both sides. This led to the unilateral, rushed and ill-planned (not to mention illegal and unwarranted) invasion of Iraq. The moral compass contained within their fundamentalist interpretation of American exceptionalism pointed to Iraq and demanded democracy at any cost.
Their staunch belief in American exceptionalism also led them to distrust intergovernmental organizations (like the United Nations) and multilateral efforts in foreign policy. Bush made sure the world understood by appointing John Bolton, noted internationally for his disbelief in the legitimacy of intergovernmental organizations, as ambassador to the United Nations. It would be like sending an anarchist to Congress — the very act seems to contradict itself and lampoon the whole system.
During President Obama’s campaign run in 2008, he was criticized for saying he “believe(d) in American exceptionalism, just as I imagine that Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism and the British believe in British exceptionalism.” What Obama meant by this was that he had great pride in America but he did not believe in the more fundamentalist approach to American supremacy that runs rampant in neo-conservatism and was so dominant during the Bush years.
That is why the change of tone in foreign policy is warmly welcomed. I know Obama’s foreign policy largely mirrors that of George W. Bush, as is the case with most presidents, but the willingness to simply engage in multilateral talks points to a brighter future. After his speech criticizing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and the violent suppression of demonstrations, some criticized him for sounding too soft. But only a few days later, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on Libya with an arms embargo and asset freeze. Thus, however “soft” Obama may have sounded in his speech, his administration, led by UN Ambassador Susan Rice, was actively working to gain UN approval for sanctions in an effort to support the Libyan people oust Gaddafi.
The change in tone has a couple benefits. Forcing democracy on a country like the Bush administration did during the Iraq War can often backfire. There is a body of literature in international relations about the convergence of political institutions and political culture. Essentially, democracy demands a participant political culture, a culture that understands the political process and recognizes the inherent value in individuals so that citizens see each other as equals. Subject political cultures, which arise under authoritarian regimes, can lead to corrupt politics because civil society has not developed the mechanisms to aggregate interests and hold politicians accountable. However, letting a desire for democracy to develop organically ushers in the transition from a subject political culture to a participant culture because it demonstrates that each person has a stake in their political future. This, along with the empathy that is generated among the people as they unify against a corrupt government, helps usher in the transition to a democratic culture. The other benefit is that it increases the U.S.’s standing in the world when we stand alongside other countries rather than pursuing our own agenda unilaterally.
By working collaboratively to spread freedom and democracy, the U.S. has awoken from its Providential nightmare, where fantasies about a moral and righteous purpose absolves us of responsibility for the very real hardship and violence that that very belief generates. The U.S. has stood with the people in all the uprisings in the Middle East and will continue to do so. And the violence in Libya is simply intolerable and inexcusable. But by working with other democracies around the world, not only will we generate better policy, but we will be demonstrating the very values that we believe mark us as “exceptional.”