On Syria, Putin, and American Exceptionalism

Like many of you, I’ve been following the terrible events in Syria for the past long while. I’ve thought about what role America should play in this, and those thoughts have been conflicted. On the one hand, if you see someone on the street getting mugged, isn’t the right thing to do to go to that person’s aid? On the other hand, this situation is far more complex than a person on the street getting mugged. (For a good summary of the situation, start with this article.)

There’s no easy answer for what to do. Bombing Syria at this point . . . what will that prove? Not bombing Syria . . . what message does that send? Life is hard when there are no clear cut answers–especially when decades down the road, there may come a point where the answers seem obvious.

And then today, you have Putin writing an op-ed in the New York Times, encouraging Americans to explore peaceful solutions before resorting to bombings. And you’ve got American politicians talking about how the article made them nauseous.

Let’s set aside the hypocrisy of Putin calling for equal rights for all for the moment. (I know–not the easiest of things to set aside.) I want to focus on the last paragraph of his piece:

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Because really, I think this is where a lot of the trouble we Americans get into abroad stems from. Our innate belief in our own exceptionalism. It’s ingrained into us as children. We’re all special. We all can do whatever we want. Be whatever we want to be. The sky’s the limit. We live in the greatest country in the world. We’re the envy of the globe. Other nations want to be our friends or be us. And so forth. It’s a concept with a long a storied past, going all the way back to Manifest Destiny, the Wild West, and many other American fundamentals. It’s the starting point from which a lot of American foreign policy stems: we’re the best, so it’s up to us to drag everyone else up to our level, too. We’re the “last remaining superpower.” We beat the USSR. We won. So that makes us the boss.

And heaven forbid if you question American exceptionalism. You’re unpatriotic. Anti-American. Ignorant. I’ve written about my thoughts on this topic before, but not in the current context. I read Putin’s piece this morning, and I found myself actually agreeing with the guy. Again–I’m not here to put Putin up on a pedestal. He’s sleazy and corrupt, from what I know of what’s going on in Russia. But the arguments he’s espousing seem to echo a lot of what I see other countries saying about America.

Put it this way. What if China was the one arguing they should bomb . . . Israel? And we were the ones trying to use the UN to keep that from happening. What if China was arguing that the UN was ineffective. That something had to be done, and since no one else was willing to do it, they’d go ahead and do it on their own? I’ll give you one guess as to how that would be received here in the States. What if you read in the news about how the head of China (currently Li Kequiang, Premier of the People’s Republic of China) said this:

China is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes China different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

Yes, we’d agree the children shouldn’t be gassed to death. Almost everyone can agree on that, right? But China’s different? China’s exceptional? And that’s an “essential truth”? Something tells me Americans would be all over that statement, pointing out all the things China does wrong. So is it any wonder when President Obama uses that argument (for American instead of China), that he gives an opening for hypocrites like Putin to step in and slam America? It’s practically tee ball.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, warts and all. We are exceptional. But so is China. So is Sweden. So is South Africa. New Zealand–every country. We all have our strengths. Our areas of being exceptional. But we also all have weak areas. Big ones. If you believe differently, you’ve been drinking too much of the Kool Aid.

What should America do now? You’re asking the wrong person. I’m a librarian and author, not a politician. My personal opinion is that this is one mess we should stay out of until it’s clearer what a “right” choice is. Explore diplomacy. Keep the threat of a bomb strike on the table. But don’t press the big button just yet. And so I guess that means I’m agreeing with Putin for once.

Will wonders never cease.

2 thoughts on “On Syria, Putin, and American Exceptionalism”

  1. But you were taught the wrong thing when people were defining American Exceptionalism to you as “be all that you can be.” What it really is: the United States was the only country in the world, at that time, to organize their government by restricting what the government could do to the people. It was an exceptional concept to declare that the people were to be protected from government. It was the Constitutional principle that government was limited by the people to a particular role that was the exception. It’s not that, as Americans, we’re better than everyone else—it’s that our form of government was an exception to all the current forms of government.

  2. You make a good point that America was once exceptional for the style of government it offered its citizens. I don’t, however, believe that was what Obama was referring to in his speech. Nor is it what politicians have been defending in the days since.

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