In his speech, the president spoke from the gut, giving us his distinctive vision of American exceptionalism. Plus, more Obama speech reaction.
John Bolton recently said that Barack Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. Tonight, Obama answered. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries,” Obama declared, in justifying the intervention in Libya. “The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Obama’s is a different version of American exceptionalism. For men like Bolton, American virtue is a given. American presidents should never apologize because America never has anything to apologize for. Our mistakes are never crimes, and if others don’t see our moral greatness that just proves their moral cynicism.
Obama, by contrast, because he can see America through post-colonial eyes, knows this is a fable. He knows that in many places on earth, America has abetted dictatorship and corruption and slaughter. In some cases he has apologized, which has led men like Bolton to claim that he sees America as no different from any other great power.
For Obama, American exceptionalism is not a fact; it is a struggle against the evil within.
But they don’t get it. For Obama, American exceptionalism is not a fact; it is a struggle. Bolton and company like to invoke World War II and the Cold War because in those conflicts we fought the evil that lay out there. Obama, by contrast, often invokes the civil-rights movement: a struggle against the evil within. That’s what makes his Libya decision powerful. He knows that there are good reasons for Middle Easterners to fear when they see American planes overhead. And yet he is acting to show that it does not have to be that way.
I don’t know how Obama’s Libya intervention will end; in his speech, he made it seem tidier than it really is. But the speech had something notably absent from his addresses on Afghanistan: the ring of authenticity. When he said that he refused to sit by and watch Benghazi be raped, he sounded like a man speaking from the gut. Obama does not romanticize the history of American power and yet he is wielding American power. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.