The protesters in the streets of Cairo could most likely care less about American domestic political debate. They have bigger issues. Still, while the chaos continues to unfold in the streets of our erstwhile ally, it might be worthwhile for those of us watching to undertake some sober reflection of what the likely fall of Mubarak says about American foreign policy.
Two seemingly disconnected data points – the latest silly debate over American “exceptionalism” and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new memoir – are informative launching pads for some of the reflection we need.
For a few days after President Obama’s State of the Union speech, cable’s talking heads were popping off about why the president refused to use the word “exceptionalism.” Exceptionalism is the notion that American ideals, ambitions, and commitment to liberty are so unique and so special that naturally the United States has not only the moral authority to lead the world, but the moral responsibility to export those ideals, ambitions and commitments.
The president did say that America is “the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.” And that “America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom and justice and dignity.”
Some conservatives, aware that Obama’s still greatest political vulnerability is his “differentness,” have seized on his allegedly tepid embrace of the exceptionalism notion to bash him. Columnist Kathleen Parker captured the essence of the argument in a recent piece when she said: “On the right, the word ‘exceptional’ – or ‘exceptionalism’ – lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It’s the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become birther code for ‘he’s not one of us.’
“Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won’t Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?”
My answer, all is not right with the world and the president, while embracing the moral leadership role that should go with the office he holds, tends to have a nuanced view of the world – not black/white, neither uniquely exceptional or standard run of the mill. The president is trying hard, against the last 100 years of history, to pull us back from the kind of exceptional arrogance that once led us into Vietnam and more recently into Iraq. For the exceptional crowd, its impossible to believe that the rest of the world just doesn’t get on the with the notion that it is American manifest destiny to lead the world and, when necessary, reshape it our liking.
Which brings us to Donald Rumsfeld. The advance press on his new book – it sounds like a standard score settler sure to get him on TV a great deal – seems sure to remind his detractors, including John McCain, of Rummy’s fundamental arrogance. The man who brought us such memorable lines as “stuff happens” in response to widespread Iraqi looting after the invasion and “known unknowns” about the non-existing weapons of mass destruction, says he has few regrets about Iraq.
Rumsfeld is a metaphor for American foreign policy cluelessness. Not only did he get almost everything wrong about the American invasion of Iraq, he clearly doesn’t possess the self reflection gene necessary to learn some of the all-too-obvious lessons. The real known unknown is what America doesn’t know – and usually refuses to learn – about the rest of the great world. We never seem to learn the limits to which others in the world are willing to embrace our ideals and follow our lead. We may be repeating this time tested mistake now in Egypt, Yemen and the rest of the volatile Middle East.
“We evidently think,” Idaho Sen. Frank Church once said, “that everything which happens abroad is our business…we have plunged into these former colonial regions as though we have been designated on high to act as trustee in bankruptcy for broken empires.”
The Middle East is ancient ground. The yoke of British, Ottoman, French and other colonial empires – and what must look to many young Arabs like the new American Empire – hangs uneasily over the region. Young people in Tunisia and Egypt, empowered by access to the Internet and ideas – not always ideas we like, for sure – are demanding change. It is hubris to think that our notions of what makes America exceptional is necessarily going to appeal, or be right, for them.
One Middle Eastern analyst, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, says it bluntly: “No one in the region is pro-American anymore. The only hope is if Obama uses this opportunity to re-orientate U.S. policy in a fundamental way,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we’re losing the Arab world.”
With thousands of our troops spread across the region, with billions lavished on Mubarak for more than 30 years – by one estimate the old boy is worth as much as $70 billion – we’re down to being an after thought to the people in the street.
Writing for the New York Times, the sagacious Tim Egan, offers some of the best sober reflection: “…in the Internet age, no authoritarian can keep his own people from knowing the truth,” Egan writes. “Millions of Egyptians are disgusted with their leadership. They have hope. They want change. And we should stand with them with the tools of an open society: ideas and technology, and maybe a deft diplomatic nudge. Beyond that, it’s out of American hands.”
As we cast a very wary eye toward Cairo and beyond, a real question for Americans is whether we can be exceptional enough to understand the limits of our power; whether we can’t learn the humbling lesson that our ability to cause other cultures, with different histories, religions and traditions, to embrace our way is exceptionally limited.