Douglas Feith and American Narcissism
Posted by David Shorr
The other day I argued we should rename the debate over American exceptionalism. Let's refer to the Republican candidates' ideology as American infallibility, since it's distinguished by unwavering belief in the inherent justness of American cause. Think of it as the Superman Doctrine, fighting the heroic "never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way" (these three things being synonymous, of course).
Now that I've seen Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey's new "Obama Doctrine Defined" piece in Commentary, we can say that the hardest of the hard-core critiques of Obama foreign policy is actually American Narcissism. According to Feith and Cropsey, President Obama has committed the cardinal sins of exercising self-restraint, showing a degree of self-awareness, and factoring the views non-Americans into his foreign policy. For them, the main imperative for America's foreign policy is that it must not hold back or show discretion:
American interests, rather than global interests, should predominate in U.S. policymaking. American leadership, as traditionally defined, is indispensible to promoting the interests of the United States and our key partners, who are our fellow democracies. American power is generally a force for good in the world. And, as important as international cooperation can be, the U.S. president should cherish American sovereignty and defend his ability to act independently to protect the American people and their interests.
Translation: job #1 is to ensure that other countries never keep America from exerting our power. Their argument is so wrapped up in self-regard that the rest of the world seems like an afterthought. They fret so nervously about preserving maximum freedom of action that they neglect to explain how their approach will actually achieve our national interests. Here's what I want to know: what does all this unapologetic assertiveness get you? Feith and Cropsey are incensed with President Obama and his advisers over the idea that America has been too much of a bully, yet they offer virtually no argument showing how their hyper-nationalist approach will yield results for US interests.
There's one especially sleazy element of Feith and Cropsey's critique that I should flag. Right after noting that President Obama actually defied their caricature of him by winding down gradually in Iraq and building up our military presence in Afghanistan, the authors add this qualifier:
But those compromises reflect the president’s pragmatic judgment about the art of the possible, not his conviction about what kind of country America should ultimately become.
In other words, whenever Obama takes forceful action on behalf of national security, that's not the "real" Obama. He's only burnishing his post-partisan image as a moderate, which serves as a decoy. How convenient to be able to claim that the operation against Osama bin Laden or the predator drone strikes are separate from President Obama's true policy aims -- never mind the fact that he previewed the attacks in Pakistan early in his presidential campaign.
Only in an America with severe amnesia could American Narcissism be considered a credible alternative to the current policy. In the first paragraph I quote above, the passing reference to the importance of international cooperation is belied by the rest of the article, which heaps scorn on the things needed in order to gain cooperation. Having help from other nations is indeed important for the pursuit of common interests, and sometimes indeed to promote narrower national self-interests.
But more to the point, it is difficult to accomplish very much at all when a global superpower confronts widespread international suspicion or resistance -- something we should know from recent experience (thank you, Douglas Feith). Given this reality, I'll take self-awareness and self-restraint over self-involvement and self-regard.