Walking Back From Bush’s ‘Vulgar Exceptionalism’

Demonstrating the peculiar conservative belief that a central component of American exceptionalism is the constant assertion of “American exceptionalism” by American politicians, Jamie Kirchick accuses President Obama of giving the wrong answer when asked about this at the NATO conference earlier this month:

Rather than endorse the proposition — as every president in recent memory has done one way or another — Obama offered a strange response: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

This is impossible. If all countries are “exceptional,” then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning. Besides, American exceptionalism is demonstrable — Cuban journalists, Chinese political dissidents, Eastern Europeans once again living in the shadow of a belligerent Russia and, yes, even some Brits and Greeks look toward the U.S. and nowhere else to defend freedom.

Yes, isn’t it amazing how, if you take one small section of a longer answer, you can generate an entire op-ed’s worth of outrage?

Leaving aside how silly it is to insist that the president go around insisting how much better his country is than every other country, looking at Obama’s answer in its entirety reveals Kirchick’s tendentiousness. After noting his pride, and the rightful pride of all Americans, of the fact that he stood on European ground that had been liberated by American troops and rebuilt with American money, Obama continued:

I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent — depends on our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

Watch it:

It was President Bush’s open belligerence and defiant unilateralism — what author Michael Signer has called “vulgar exceptionalism” — that represented the genuine departure from the traditions of American foreign policy. In seeking to re-establish the United States as the moral leader in an international system based upon the rule of law, President Obama is trying to reinvigorate those traditions.

I understand that this more nuanced and rigorous understanding of American exceptionalism is a bit complex for many conservatives. As evidenced by their continuing support for the policies of George W. Bush, they tend to be much more delighted by simple assertions of American power than by policies that actually strengthen it.