Friday, April 30, 2010
Like It Or Not
The right wing blogosphere was apoplectic a few weeks ago after President Obama said at the nuclear security summit he hosted in Washington, D.C., "It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."
The reactions of the 2008 Republican ticket to President Obama’s comments were interesting. Both Sarah Palin and John McCain spoke out about President Obama’s statement and, not surprisingly, both misinterpreted what President Obama meant. Sarah Palin’s misinterpretation was the more benign of the two, (she being the member of the ticket dangling her very expensive shoes at the high end of the intellectual seesaw). Governor Palin said, "I would hope that our leaders in Washington, D.C., understand we like to be a dominant superpower. I don't understand a world view where we have to question whether we like it or not that America is powerful."
Soon-to-be-Ex-Senator McCain’s misinterpretation also demonstrated a lack of understanding of what the President was saying, as well as showing McCain’s belief in the myth of American Exceptionalism. "That's one of the more incredible statements I've ever heard a president of the United States make in modern times," McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, told Fox News. "We are the dominant superpower, and we're the greatest force for good in the history of this country (sic), and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower."
I don’t have a direct line to the Oval Office, but when I stopped to think about what President Obama said, it became clear that he was saying, “We are a dominant military superpower and because of this, for better or for worse, we are automatically involved in any conflict anywhere in the world.” His statement was a description of reality, not a regret of American power. For better or for worse, we have to have an opinion. For better or for worse, we have to take sides. For better or for worse, these conflicts often cost American lives and treasure.
President Obama was expressing the truth that being powerful brings with it responsibility. Sarah Palin’s response gives evidence of her inability to see the nuances of life as a superpower. She thinks, “power: good” and that is as far as she takes it. John McCain takes it several steps further. He believes America is the best country in the world and God has had some role in making this true. Therefore, it is our right and duty to exercise our power in pursuit of our goals. This sort of belief in American Exceptionalism had its fullest recent expression in the foreign policy of George Bush. He believed the American version of freedom was the best thing in the world and therefore all countries should have it, too—even if it we had to force it on them.
This belief--that America is God’s instrument for all that is right and good and holy—can, from a slightly different perspective, be seen as arrogant self-interest. Barack Obama is able to walk in the shoes of the people of the other nations of the world. His perspective is not as narrow as that of George Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. Because of this, his mind can hold onto the idea that with power comes responsibility and headaches sometimes.
John McCain seems to think that if America takes an action, that action is automatically good because we are “the greatest force for good” in the world. Barack Obama understands that there is more to it than that. He takes American power seriously and wants to exercise it in a way that makes the world a better place, but he understands that God and exceptionalism have nothing to do with it.
John Calvin preached the “doctrine of election” hundreds of years ago. It stated, in part, that God shows whom he has favored through the accumulation of wealth and power. Those who believe in American Exceptionalism have taken this idea and applied it to countries. To them, America’s wealth and power are obvious signs that we are God’s elect among nations. To me, our wealth and power are an historical accident based on our geographic isolation and surplus of natural resources.
It is simply an extraordinary claim that God has chosen the United States to be His instrument of foreign policy on Earth. I do not believe in God. And the God I do not believe in doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the economic dynamism and military might of various countries. The God I don’t believe in wants people and nations to exercise their power with reluctance, humility, and the utmost deliberation and care.
So, yes, Barack Obama had it just right. Like it or not, one way or another we get pulled into conflicts. I am not happy about this, but I find it far preferable to launching wars of choice in the mistaken belief that we are right simply because we are the United States.