Unless Barack Obama is even a weaker president than he appears to be, the effusion of editorial emoting unleashed by the Ukraine crisis is unlikely to have any effect on U.S. policy. Pray, let that be the case.
Should Obama’s advisers look for guidance to the opinion pages of the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, much less the Weekly Standard or Fox News, we’re in deep trouble. One might as well leaf through the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog for guidance on empowering women.
Still, the recent flurry of angst-filled opining provides a concise tutorial on what we might call the theology of American Exceptionalism, the irreligious religion that flourishes in certain quarters of the American elite and periodically finds favor with the larger body politic.
Central to that theology are several tenets, vividly displayed by overwrought commentators over the last several days.
Tenet Number One. History is what exponents of American Exceptionalist theology choose to remember. What they choose to forget does not exist. Or, at the very least, it lacks relevance. So selective amnesia is not only permitted—it’s essential.
Here, for example, is the postwar era as neatly rendered by Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. In contrast with Obama’s fecklessness when facing naked Russian aggression, the Cold War, she writes, was the heroic period “when we checked Soviet expansion and stood up for free peoples.” Not for Rubin such complications as Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, cozying up to Marcos or Somoza or making nice with the mass murderer known as Chairman Mao.
Tenet Number Two. The events we are commanded to remember are those that happened during the period 1933-1945. In geographic terms, we can be even more specific: They occurred in the space bounded by London, where stiff upper lips withstood the Blitz, and Auschwitz, where countless Jews were murdered. But the true epicenter was Munich, site of the great betrayal from which the horrors were said to follow.
Events prior to or after that period—1914 or 2003, for example—or events occurring beyond that expanse—you know, like Vietnam—don’t count for much.
Munich, of course—shorthand for Neville Chamberlain’s greenlighting of Adolf Hitler—symbolizes appeasement. In the theology of American Exceptionalism, there is no greater sin. Those unwilling today to rescue Ukraine are craven appeasers.
Sure, writes Jonathan Tobin in Commentary, “they self-consciously avoid echoing Neville Chamberlain’s characterization of Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Munich as a ‘faraway country’ when distancing themselves from Ukraine’s peril.” Even so, “there’s little question that they are just as willing to have the West abandon it as it did the Czechs.” We know where that led and where appeasement will inevitably lead again. “Ukraine can only be ignored at the cost of America’s credibility as a world power and to the detriment of the cause of liberty.” It’s that simple.
Tenet Number Three. The events of 1933-1945 summoned the United States to determine history’s future course. This became and remains the nation’s responsibility— not only to prevent any recurrence of 1933-1945, but to create a new world in America’s own image. When Washington exercises “global leadership,” good things happen—peace reigns, economies grow, freedom rings. When Washington hesitates, the world goes to hell in a hand basket.
Contemplating Ukraine in the New York Times, Roger Cohen bemoans the onset of what he calls an “Age of Reluctance.” According to Cohen, “Americans have turned inward,” a sad and shameful state of affairs. As a consequence, he observes, “American power is dominant but no longer determinant.” Yet apart perhaps from when it was bombing Japanese cities into smithereens, when exactly has American power ever been “determinant”?
The reflexively hawkish editorial page of the Washington Post concurs with Cohen’s assessment. American power exists to be used, not husbanded. The disappointing outcomes of recent misadventures provide no excuse for lowering the nation’s global profile. “There were similar retrenchments after the Korea and Vietnam wars and when the Soviet Union crumbled,” the Post avers. “But the United States discovered each time that the world became a more dangerous place without its leadership and that disorder in the world could threaten U.S. prosperity.”
Remember the disorder that followed the Korean War? It was called the Eisenhower era, when budgets balanced, jobs were plentiful and no American soldiers died in needless wars. As for retrenchment in the wake of communism’s collapse, it certainly did not prevent the United States from armed intervention in Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq (again). No matter. “While the United States has been retrenching, the tide of democracy in the world, which once seemed inexorable, has been receding,” the Post insists.
Commentary’s Tobin knows exactly what’s coming next: A “retreat back to fortress America,” with the United States “reduced to a second-rate nation with no power to protect its interests or its friends.” The inevitable result: “a planet where tyrants feel free to act.” Well, that’s one perspective. Another might be that while the United States was squandering blood and treasure on a war in Iraq that Commentary and the Post editorial page enthusiastically promoted, the rest of the world moved on. Of course, that perspective rejects the American Exceptionalist assumption that Washington is the sun around which the remainder of the universe orbits.
Tenet Number Four. Too few ordinary Americans recognize the nation’s providentially ordained responsibility. The unwashed masses are too quick to give into the temptation to shirk their duty.
Here is the historian Victor Davis Hanson berating his countrymen in National Review. The problem with this country? Let VDH give it to you with the bark off: We live in “a newly isolationist and self-indulgent America, eager to talk, bluster, or threaten its way out of its traditional postwar leadership role.” In the American Exceptionalist catechism, isolationism comes in a close second to appeasement in the ranking of heinous sins. Still, one might think that Hanson would have the decency to wait until U.S. troops conclude their futile 13-year-long war in Afghanistan before charging his countrymen with isolationism.
Precept Number Five. Political leaders without guts or gumption, seeing the world in shades of gray rather than black-and-white, facilitate this shirking of duty. The key to preventing Americans from behaving irresponsibility, the world once again experiencing the horrors of 1933-1945, is visionary and charismatic leadership. The Ukraine crisis provides only the latest example of our wimpy president’s failure to lead.
Here we arrive at the ultimate explanation not just for the crisis in Ukraine, but also for all the ills afflicting the world: It’s Obama’s fault.
Let the Wall Street Journal offer a summary judgment. “The world is full of revisionist powers and bad actors looking to exploit the opening created by Mr. Obama’s retreat from global leadership.” Developments in Ukraine are nothing less than “the leading edge of what could quickly become a new world disorder.”
Apparently, the inaction of even an undeterminative America is determinative. “Adversaries and allies in Asia and the Middle East will be watching President Obama’s response now,” according to the Journal. China has its eyes on Japanese islands. Iran is counting on U.S. weakness in nuclear talks.”
“Who lost Syria, Ukraine, Iran (stiffing the Green Revolution and allowing that country to go nuclear), the states of the Arab Spring and maybe Venezuela?” Jennifer Rubin knows the answer to her own question. “Obama, whose presidency would go down as an … utterly failed one,” that’s who. Sound the air raid sirens. Stock the bomb shelters. Ship the kids off to sanctuary in the wilds of Canada.
Writing in the Washington Post, Eliot Cohen concedes that “Putin is not Hitler, and the 2010s are not the 1930s.” Then in the miniscule space that separates the end of that sentence and the beginning of the next, he pivots 180 degrees. “[T]he world is a darkening place,” he warns, “and the precedents being set are ones that will haunt us for decades to come….”
Only the leadership of a Winston Churchill, a Ronald Reagan or perhaps a George W. Bush can reverse the tide. “Otherwise,” Cohen writes, “Churchill’s words after a not-dissimilar episode, in which a powerful state seized borderlands inhabited by its ethnic compatriots, will ring true again: ‘And do not suppose this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.’”
“Reckoning” is a powerful world, with a moving Churchillian resonance. I take its meaning to be this: to face the truth; to assess consequences without flinching or flim-flamery. In that regard, shouldn’t a thorough reckoning with what did happen after the United States launched a preventive war against Iraq take precedence over what might happen if the United States refrains from similar action in Ukraine?
Let’s permit Times columnist David Brooks to have the final word. Taking stock of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Brooks detects a country infected with a “touchy messianism,” its “passions aroused and philosophic zealotry at full boil.” Russia, he speculates, has the look of a nation “motivated by a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries.” Maybe. Or perhaps Brooks is describing tendencies found much closer to home.