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June 17, 2011

The Debate on American Infallibility, Not Exceptionalism
Posted by David Shorr

Hanskung

Glad to see Roger Cohen's critique of the emerging 2012 foreign policy debate in this morning's International Herald Tribune. As Cohen points out, the Republican candidates are all peddling the same caricature:

They're trying to cast Barack Obama as a president who has sold America short, an impostor who has ditched the mystical belief in the unique calling of the United States that is American exceptionalism.

The real problem is the mislabeling of this debate. It's the idea of American infallibility, not exceptionalism, that divides the president and his critics. The Republican party line is that America knows best, and the only thing our foreign policy needs is to be firmer, more resolute, uncompromising, unwavering, resolute, and insistent. More like we really mean it. To my ears, the GOP leaders all sound like they're flattering themselves with the fantasy of being the Winston Churchills of our time -- courageously resisting evil forces.

American exceptionalism is the proposition that the United States is more than just another nation among 192, that we have constructive or even crucial leadership to offer. President Obama and his challengers are on the same side of that issue. American infallibility, on the other hand, rests on a moral clarity that sweeps aside any need to solicit others' support, understand other perspectives, or reach compromises.

As it's so often the case, you only need Stephen Colbert's brilliant satire to know how disconnected this is from reality. When Donald Trump withdrew from the 2012 race, Colbert fretted over the loss for foreign policy: "Who's gonna tell OPEC the fun is over? Who's gonna tell China to go f*** themselves?"

As I argued before Trump's withdrawal, he was merely voicing a cruder version of the same superficial, self-righteous, out-of-touch foreign policy approach as the others. Roger Cohen quoted Bruce Jentleson in his column and so will I, the following passage from Bruce and Steve Weber's excellent End of Arrogance book:

In a complex and rapidly changing environment it does not work well to repeatedly reinforce who we are and what we stand for. We know those things, and we know how they shape what we do, how we act, how we respond. Strategy is ultimately about how we influence what others do.

This is my test of seriousness for those who aspire to be commander in chief. And I'm still waiting to hear a candidate take the challenge of real-world effectiveness any more seriously than Donald Trump.

 

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