Presidential Debate of October 22, 2012: AHA Roundtable

Debating American Exceptionalism

Max Paul Friedman, October 2012

Max Paul FriedmanAs moderator Bob Schieffer observed, a debate held during the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis can offer compelling reminders, but President Obama and Governor Romney seemed to be reading outdated books. In the conventional telling, President Kennedy’s triumph came from his willingness to threaten war to force his adversary to back down from a nuclear threat. That narrative encouraged subsequent presidents to try graduated escalation in Vietnam and Iraq, and now undergirds the strategy to force Iran to abandon the enrichment of uranium.

Historians have punctured the myth that brinkmanship won the day during the Missile Crisis. Kennedy did not intimidate the Soviets into surrender. Instead, he engaged in negotiations that addressed the security concerns of all sides. Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw from Cuba the nuclear missiles that Americans found threatening only when Kennedy agreed to withdraw from its NATO ally Turkey the American Jupiter missiles that Khrushchev found threatening. And although Fidel Castro was not satisfied, the settlement included a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba that has been upheld until today. The negotiated deal, requiring concessions of all parties, secured a lasting peace where war seemed inevitable.

Obama and Romney, however, spoke about Iran as though diplomacy means ordering your opponent to capitulate. “The deal we’ll accept is, they end their nuclear program,” said the president. “We need to put the pressure on them as hard as we possibly can,” said the governor. If the anniversary of the most dangerous moment of the Cold War teaches anything, it is that negotiations that acknowledge that other countries have core interests too can help achieve national security goals, especially when military responses risk escalating out of control.

The candidates agreed that America’s longest war will end in success in 2014, but ignored the paradox that makes success on American terms impossible. At the heart of counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) is the premise that U.S. money and advice can produce a national government the population will support. This was also Kennedy’s strategy in Vietnam. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now in the position of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem: a prickly, nepotistic U.S. ally dismissive of the pressure for political reforms U.S. strategy deems essential. Without reform, COIN fails. With massive aid and a swollen paid army, Karzai, like Diem, is better able to resist that pressure. He is unlikely to meet Diem’s fate, killed in a coup Kennedy authorized. But he is already replicating Diem’s tentative efforts to explore a deal with his enemies against the wishes of the United States. Since history shows negotiations are how insurgencies end, Schieffer should have asked Obama why the U.S. is still setting preconditions to talks with the Taliban, when those talks represent the only possibility for attenuating the worst aspects of Afghanistan’s grim future.

The candidates differed on how much to aid rebels in Syria and whether Obama should have encouraged the protestors during Iran’s failed Green Revolution. Perhaps Obama did not want to echo past cycles of exhortation and abandonment of Hungarians in 1956, Kurds in 1975, or Iraqi Shiites in 1991. Or perhaps he had the Afghan Mujahideen in mind when he cautioned against “putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.” While Romney tried to sheath the saber he’d rattled during the primaries, he expanded Woodrow Wilson’s promise of what America would bring: “human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections…to promote those principles around the world.” That is a tall order, as Obama seemed to recognize when he stated, “Syrians are going to have to determine their own future.” Their differences come down to whether American exceptionalism means the world must follow our leadership (Romney), or that American leadership can make a substantial contribution to the world (Obama). Both candidates genuflected before the electorate’s desire to hear reassurances of America’s indispensability and greatness. (Not much has changed since Tocqueville found Americans “insatiable in their appetite for praise.”) But whereas Romney followed the messianic tradition of asserting that America can and should remake the world, Obama seemed to understand that America must exist in it.

Romney blamed Obama for violence in the Middle East: “It’s essential for an American president to show strength,” he said, implying terrorists attack U.S. assets when the president is weak. This may dismay disciples of Ronald Reagan (Beirut embassy and Marine barracks bombings, 1983; Pan Am 103 bombing, 1988), Bill Clinton (U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Saalam, 1998), and George W. Bush (September 11 attacks, 2001). Terrorism is nonpartisan. Foreign policy, we are again reminded, is not.

Max Paul Friedman teaches history at American University. His most recent book is Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2012).