Exceptional or Exceptionalism

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles

Back in 2003, when Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) put together the collection of essays Power Trip on the emerging foreign policy of the Bush administration, our big debate was over continuity versus change. Was the aggressive unilateralism of George W. Bush and his cohort a wholly new creation? Or was it simply business as usual for the most powerful country in the world?

While acknowledging the sharp right-turn executed by the Bush administration, I emphasized the continuity of unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy. “No administration, however radical its intentions or substantial its political capital, can escape history,” I wrote in the book’s introduction. The Clinton administration, which began with a much-heralded appeal to multilateralism in the wake of the Cold War’s demise, ended up by rejecting key international treaties, undertaking military actions in Iraq and Kosovo without UN approval, pushing hard on military exports, and, in general, insisting that the United States was, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, an “indispensable nation.” Clinton was contributing to a long tradition stretching back through Reagan, Johnson, and Truman. The Bush administration built on this ample foundation.

In Oslo, during his Nobel acceptance speech last week, President Barack Obama demonstrated that he, too, cannot step outside of history. I’m not talking about the history outlined by Howard Zinn in his book A People’s History of the United States and brought to life by Matt Damon and other actors in The People Speak, on television last Sunday. Obama did, of course, refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi in his Nobel speech. But he devoted most of his remarks to defending war in general and the Afghanistan conflict in particular.

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes,” the president said. “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” Wars are morally justified, he noted, if they are conducted in self-defense or as a last resort, if the force employed is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared violence.

The problem with the president’s interpretation of just-war theory is that the conflict in Afghanistan — the issue that most threatens to undercut the legitimacy of his prize — doesn’t fit the bill. It is difficult to claim the war is still in self defense, not when the Taliban pose no threat to the United States and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a few fragments that could relocate elsewhere. The force is far from proportional, given that the most powerful country in the world is bombing one of the poorest and weakest. And civilians have surely not been spared violence. Stephen Walt calculates that the United States has killed 12,000-32,000 civilians in Afghanistan since the war’s outbreak. That compares to fewer than 1,000 U.S. casualties. In short, the Afghanistan War is an exception and, for national security reasons, the United States makes such exceptions.

No one can fault the president for not giving a well-crafted speech. Indeed, his muscular defense of U.S. military actions has drawn praise from across the political spectrum. “Barack Obama signaled that the world had better get ready for a tougher, less forgiving, more quintessentially American approach from a man who certainly gave the soft touch a try,” writes Robert Kagan. E. J. Dionne praises the president’s tough-minded idealism; David Broder acknowledges that “you can learn a lot from listening to this man.”

It is indeed a special talent of the president’s to be a man for all political seasons. At Oslo, he reassured the Europeans that the United States would no longer fly off the handle. “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves,” he said. “For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention — no matter how justified.” He upheld the struggle for human rights around the world, and yet also argued that “condemnation without discussion” can often lead nowhere.

Politicians who tread the fine line often end up satisfying no one. For now, Obama has managed the political trick of satisfying many. He offers nuclear disarmament (but not too fast), closing Guantánamo (almost), a surge in Afghanistan (but with limits), an uptick in military spending (but not huge), some movement forward on climate change (but not too much), and a ban on torture (but not rendition). With something for everyone, he is a Santa Claus for our recessionary times: rich in his eloquence but austere in his handouts.

But one thing the president won’t do, no matter how many petitions we send in his direction, is push a restart button on U.S. foreign policy. Consider his new overture to the Muslim world. In Cairo, Obama called for a new beginning in relations between the United States and Muslim peoples. “But even within his speech, he undercut his message for a new beginning when he spoke about widening the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” writes FPIF contributor Farrah Hassen in The Cairo Detour. “He didn’t acknowledge the growing civilian casualties — not limited to but certainly increased by drone attacks, ostensibly aimed at dismantling the Taliban and al-Qaeda. These casualties have increased the risk of blowback against the United States rather than win the hearts and minds of Afghans, Pakistanis, and Muslims throughout the world.”

The Nobel speech was yet another reminder that whatever virtues he might have as a person, a thinker, and a former activist, Barack Obama must now perform a different role as an American president. He must represent U.S. national interest as defined by the presidents who came before him and as shaped by the requirements of a military superpower. He reserves the right to act unilaterally, to intervene militarily, to make exceptions, to lead the world. Multilateralism when we can, Bill Clinton declared, unilateralism when we must: This, too, is the Obama doctrine. There is some wiggle room as we saw in his speeches in Cairo and Prague. But, as the brilliant style and problematic content of his Nobel speech demonstrated, he remains an exceptional politician working in an exceptionalist tradition.

Coups in Pakistan, Honduras

The coup leaders in Honduras have scored their second triumph. The first was their military takeover. The second is their rigged election.

“The November 29 national elections for president and congress shouldn’t have taken place,” writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Honduran Elections a Parody of Democracy. “The voting was organized and overseen by an illegal coup regime. This regime officially suspended basic civil liberties, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. It closed down independent media, or repeatedly blocked transmissions. In Honduras, normal electoral activities were redefined as criminal behavior, including holding rallies and proclaiming the right to abstain. Reports of coercion in factories and among public employees came in from individuals who suffered the threats firsthand. The army enforced the dictatorial decrees in the street.”

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the military has executed a soft coup. The United States is desperate for information about the Taliban — how to defeat it, how to negotiate with its “reconcilable” elements. “The Pakistani army and its powerful intelligence agencies hold the keys to unlock the Afghan conflict,” writes Shibil Siddiqi in Obama’s Surge and Pakistan. “The army has offered to share this information and to actively mediate between the United States and the Taliban — for a price. The quid pro quo involves two significant components. The Pakistani army — which has ruled the country for most of its existence — must be recognized as the real power in Pakistan as opposed to its fragile elected government. And the army must be given a larger voice in deciding the future of Afghanistan. Both conditions seem to have met American acceptance.”

The United States has gone along with the Honduran coup. And it has helped engineer the Pakistani military’s power grab. Such are the consequences of exceptionalism.

FPIF, December 15, 2009

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