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What’s Wrong with American “Exceptionalism”

The term “American exceptionalism” has an effect in American political rhetoric similar to the effect that a fog machine has on a crowded dance floor. It obscures and makes easier things that would be more difficult without its presence.

Some people use “exceptionalism” to describe allegiance to the principles espoused in the U.S. Constitution. I agree that in the age of Tocqueville, American exceptionalism described America’s distinctions from (particularly continental) Europe. The establishment of a new country provided an opportunity to do things differently.

However, an assemblage of phenomena like Congress’s half-century shrug and sigh at imperial presidentialism and visuals like this call into question the extent to which the republican constitutional vision of the nation’s founders and the institutions it spawned actually constrain American politics today.

Congress and Libya's Nicaraguan Representative

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in an email yesterday that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg will be leaving his post, and that Bill Burns, currently the undersecretary of state for political affairs, will be nominated to fill the position. Burns will be moving up a wrung on the diplomatic ladder, going from the #3 spot to #2. Clinton described Burns as “one of our nation's most distinguished diplomats and most talented public servants.” Steinberg has long been rumored to be somewhat unhappy with his position in the administration. He is heading to Syracuse University, where he’ll be the dean of the Maxwell School.

The Obama Doctrine

In recent decades, we've had the Carter doctrine (Persian Gulf), the Reagan doctrine (arming rebels to rollback communism), and the Bush doctrine (democracy promotion, or depending on your viewpoint, crusade). Now comes the Obama doctrine. Though the progenitor of it is disavowing any intention of creating a doctrine, claiming that Libya is "unique."

No, it isn't. As Rory Stewart points out in the March 31 London Review of Books, Libya doesn't meet the criteria of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The West intervened not because it had to but because it could. And Obama, confronted with advisers who remembered Rwanda (Hillary Clinton) and Bosnia (Samantha Power), decided that he wasn't going to go down in history as the president who fiddled while Benghazi burned. So he sent in the Air Force, created a multilateral coalition, and then gave a speech justifying it all.

The speech earned the praise of Robert Kagan as "Kennedy-esque." In this view, Obama has shouldered the responsbilities that come with being president. Grown in office. Ready to make the big decisions. Understands the importance of American leadership. Moral values. And so forth.

Cricket Diplomacy in South Asia

Those who do not follow closely either the game of cricket or the popular mood in South Asian countries may not fully appreciate how big a deal was the sporting event held on Wednesday at Muhali, India. The national teams of India and Pakistan met in a semifinal of the cricket world cup. The match-up was not foreordained; India had to beat perennial cricket powerhouse Australia in a quarterfinal to get to Wednesday's match. Once the pairing was set up, it became the leading public focus of attention in both India and Pakistan. Many employers had to make special preparations for the day of the match, when they knew absenteeism would be high and little work would get done.

Cricket is such a major diversion in South Asia that the match was bound to have ripple effects no matter when it was held. The potential effects are all the greater coming at a time when India and Pakistan are trying to impart some momentum to their latest, just-started round of bilateral negotiations on the territorial and security issues that divide them. The match was the first meeting between the two cricket teams in either one's home country since the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 by the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Cricket diplomacy has previously played a role in Indian-Pakistani relations, with varying degrees of success. Hopes for a beneficial effect this time are justified on several grounds. A peaceful meeting in a sporting event is inherently a sort of goodwill gesture. It gets members of the public thinking about the adversary in terms other than the tough political issues that divide them. And in this case, it can get leaders talking with each other. Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani accepted an invitation from India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to watch the match together.

The GOP and Military Spending

The Defending Defense crowd has a new reason not to cut military spending: we're at war (again, still). So far, with a government shutdown looming, the GOP House leadership seems to agree that the Pentagon's budget will be largely off limits in the search for spending cuts.

The prospects for deep cuts in military spending were never great, especially so long as the Inside-the-Beltway consensus holds that the United States is, and should forever remain, the world's policeman. As I've said repeatedly, and as Ben Friedman and I detailed here and here we spend so much on our military because we ask it to do so much. Besides the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Libya, the U.S. military is still helping with post-earthquake/tsunami clean up in Japan, and is hunting terrorists and pirates in a dozen far-flung places around the globe. Meanwhile, our allies are cutting military spending, which suggests that the burdens on our troops will grow rather than diminish in coming years.

Flickers of Terror

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen will be on the Hill today at 5 pm to give senators a classified briefing on Libya. And the Senate leadership—Harry Reid on the Democratic side and Mitch McConnell on the Republican—both told their people to come bearing tough questions. And if that doesn’t work, Reid said, they might just have to resort to legislative measures. Most are wondering what the U.S. goals are in Libya and how Washington plans on getting out of the action.

Terrorism is also likely to be on the senators’ minds. The Senate Armed Services Committee heard from the U.S. NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis yesterday. Though he said the evidence was by no means overwhelming, he told lawmakers that intelligence is showing “flickers” of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah activity in the Libyan opposition. He stressed that “the intelligence that I'm receiving at this point makes me feel that the leadership that I'm seeing are responsible men and women.”

What Regime Change in Syria Would Mean

Accelerating unrest in Syria, with the regime scrambling to find some combination of concession and repression to stay in power, has regime change juices in the United States flowing. The Washington Post editorial page says “it is time to recognize that Syria’s ruler is an unredeemable thug—and that the incipient domestic uprising offers a potentially precious opportunity.” Elliott Abrams declares that with regimes “falling like dominoes” in the Middle East, “Syria is next.” He issues a clarion call to rid the world of the “murderous clan” and “bloody regime” of Bashar al-Assad.

This excitement is understandable, and to some extent justified. The Syria regime's intermittently bloody crackdown on protestors is a reminder of its shortage of scruples. Then there are all the other reasons this regime gives many people reasons to hate it, from its dominating role in Lebanon (and possibly the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri) to its continued association with Palestinian groups that have used terrorism. Unlike Libya, Syria has reached no agreements with the United States on matters such as terrorism and unconventional weapons. And as for opportunities, the current region-wide popular upheaval and its spread already to Syria probably represent the most threatening challenge to the regime since Assad's father seized power in a coup more than four decades ago.

Free Wars are Dumb Wars

A myth has developed that funding U.S. wars outside the normal defense budget process is the norm. Even super-veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, writing last week about the cost of bombing Libya, implied that there is nothing unprecedented about using supplemental appropriations to fund wars that last nearly a decade:

Unforeseen military operations that require expenditures such as those being made for the Libyan effort normally require supplemental appropriations since they are outside the core Pentagon budget. That is why funds for Afghanistan and Iraq are separate from the regular Defense Department budget.

Actually, U.S. military actions have traditionally been funded within the normal defense budget or moved into it once the spending was foreseeable. That was the case for Vietnam. And, as the Congressional Research Service notes here, Congress in the mid-1990s began funding U.S. peacekeeping in the Balkans and the no-fly zones over Iraq in the base defense budget, using an “Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund.”

Keeping war funds outside the normal defense budget has several pernicious consequences.

Benghazi, Facebook and Regrets

Many top diplomats are in London today for meetings on Libya hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League officials and other foreign ministers all got together to talk about humanitarian support, the Libyan opposition and, among other things, options for ending the intervention. Some officials, including Italy’s foreign minister, are behind plans for a cease-fire and Qaddafi exile. However, President Obama insisted last night in his speech to the American public that the military operation is not about regime change.

For the second time in two weeks, Clinton sat down today with Mahmoud Jabril, a leader of the Libyan opposition movement. And Washington is sending an envoy, Chris Stevens, to Benghazi in Libya to strengthen connections with the opposition. Stevens was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli before it was closed down. Washington stressed that these meetings do not equate to formal recognition.

Will Realism Make A Comeback in the GOP?

Politico recently observed that realism is as dead as a Dodo bird in the GOP. Neocons such as Elliot Abrams were quoted as saying that any opposition to democratization abroad in the party was nugatory. The article concluded:

Former Govs. Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, have differed largely only in their attempts to outdo one another in committing to what Bush called the “freedom agenda.”

They’re all basically mainstream in their agreement about the [Obama] administration being too friendly toward enemies and too harsh toward allies,” said Randy Scheunemann, who was John McCain’s top foreign policy hand in 2008, has worked for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and has informally advised other contenders.

Yet recently, Haley Barbour minuted that the Libyan venture was a bad idea. "What are we doing in Libya?" he asked. Barbour denounced the idea of nation-building and said that America has already "been in Afghanistan 10 years." This was enough to incur the wrath of the Wall Street Journal editorial page today, which enforces a kind of doctrinal discipline in the ranks of the GOP. Barbour's views, it essentially said, should be proscribed.

As the Journal put it,

As for "nation-building" in Libya, we have yet to notice a U.S. official who has advocated the deployment of American ground troops, much less a long-term mission rebuilding a Libyan state.

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April 17, 2014