Obama Should Show 'Exceptionalism' in Egypt Crisis

The president needs to engage with Egypt to further democracy and peace in the Middle East.

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Just how "exceptional" is America in the global grand scheme of things?

If it is still so, that we are special on the world stage, now is the time to prove it by muscular diplomatic engagement with Egypt to further democracy and peace in the Middle East. We have a lot to make up for in that department, if you know what I mean. [See photos of the Egypt protests.]

[See a slide show of 15 post-Cold War uprisings.]

Lately, I should say, we're the exception that broke all the rules of our own national myth.

But "American exceptionalism" is now in intellectual vogue, the can being kicked around by the Washington politerati (a new term I invented--so much for the stodgy "power elite"). President Obama is being urged to embrace the doctrine by one Kathleen Parker, a brightly persuasive Washington Post conservative columnist and CNN talk show cohost. It's as if his credentials as a patriot need to be vetted again. [Read Robert Schlesinger: Obama Has Mentioned 'American Excpetionalism' More Than Bush]                

Yes, we stand alone in so many ways. Surely no country but us could stage a Super Bowl--the halftime show must be the envy of the world. No country but us could grow a gal like Sarah Palin and a guy like Barack Obama in the same crop, a pair of perfect opposites. And Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday was celebrated Sunday, was a classic American character, a sunny optimist whose stories - from Bedtime for Bonzo to the Cold War--often had a happy Hollywood ending. Many liberals like me liked him personally, even as we disagreed with much of what he did in policy and practice. [See a gallery of photos commemorating Reagan's 100th birthday.]

Let's not forget, we also have enormous defense expenditures and a high homicide rate like no other nation's, along with astronomical healthcare costs compared to other Western democracies. Then again, we got decades of psychic mileage (and rightly so) from being the good guys in world wars and being there for our friends and allies in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson, about a century ago, articulated the notion that the United States should save the world for democracy. In the salad days of the 1990s, President Bill Clinton championed peace-keeping in Bosnia, a role that gave our military forces a constructive and valuable role in an outcome that most agree only the United States could have achieved.

To be fair to Obama, no other president has been put to the rhetorical test of "American exceptionalism." As my editor Robert Schlesinger pointed out in this blog, Obama has invoked "American exceptionalism" once, in answer to a question. And in the State of the Union address, he referred to America as "the light of the world," a subtle but not explicit affirmation of the idea. And in fact, no other modern president has uttered the phrase in a speech, ever, and you can take Robert's word, because he authored a book on White House Ghosts.

[Read A Brief History of the State of the Union Address.]

Yet this vexing question is causing the chattering class to look at the nation closely in the mirror. The 21st century has not been kind to us--or rather, we have not been kind to the 21st century. The ravages of war left lines, scars, and other marks on our lofty ideals. Morale is low, perhaps also because there is a shrinking sense of fairness and opportunity in handing down the American dream. The two dark wars of choice that President George W. Bush led injured our nation's sense of itself as a force for good in the world and helped turn the economy upside down. Externally, those wars damaged our moral standing in the world community, as did our official false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the United Nations. That was Colin Powell's show, but it was really Dick Cheney's and Donald Rumsfeld's rodeo.

Academics, notably the sociologist Jerome Karabel of Berkeley, have explored the origins, meaning and reality of "American exceptionalism." His studies show that we are indeed different from the rest of advanced democracies--not necessarily in a positive or negative way. For example, Americans tend to be more religious than our friends across the Atlantic--partly because the spirit of the New England Puritans still dwells within us. What he is finding in his research will fill a book.

For now, I say: less talk about American exceptionalism. Better for Obama and our nation to act. Show that we can be exceptional, in a good way, again on the global stage--starting right now with the uprising in Egypt.

  • See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the Egypt uprisings.
  • See photos of the Egypt protests.
  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.