Entry from March 29, 2011

Back during the presidential election campaign of 2004, I remember thinking that there was one and only one reason for wishing for a Kerry victory. That was out of sheer curiosity as to how far and how long an American president could get away with pretending that this country was Canada — which is to say, a well-intentioned observer of the world scene, always ready for a spot of “peace-keeping” when needed but determinedly a non-combatant in the world-leader’s business of the making and breaking of nations. The incumbent who was John Kerry’s opponent that year had started out with similarly pacific and isolationist intentions, but these had only lasted for eight months, until September 11th, 2001. Could the candidate of the peace party who had opposed every American military intervention in the world since Vietnam — though Iraq he both favored and opposed — do any better?

Well, we were never to find out. But the clock started ticking again with the election of President Obama who also rose to the leadership of his party with the help of the pacifist left. Some would say that, having signed on to what was essentially the Bush policy in Afghanistan after less than eleven months, he wasn’t all that much more successful than his predecessor, but this is not quite a fair comparison. You can still be a peacenik and a Buchananite while allowing yourself to be persuaded that the consequences of premature withdrawal from a war that is on-going (and, therefore, not your fault) are worse than gradually winding it down — which is what the President thought he was doing in agreeing with most of what the generals were asking for in the way of additional troops. But now, after sitting out the abortive revolution in Iran and the successful ones in Tunisia and Egypt, in last night’s speech about his intervention in Libya he has finally, in the words of Bill Kristol “rejoined — or joined — the historical American foreign policy mainstream.”

To have the approval of Bill Kristol, seen by many of those who have hated him (and who have supported Mr Obama) as chief neocon bogeyman, must be like gall and wormwood to the President. Perhaps Bill Kristol is the answer to the question tweeted by Eli Lake (was it?) when he asked whom the neocons had to trade for him to get Barack Obama on their team. Of course, the other way to look at this is to say that the whole concept of “neocon” as applied to foreign policy was flawed from the outset if both our 43rd and 44th presidents, not to mention Bill Kristol, can now be said to qualify for the title. The fact is that American intervention in conflicts around the world — though not, as the President’s straw man of last night would have it, in all conflicts in the world — is not really a partisan matter but pretty nearly inevitable. The mantle of world leadership has fallen on our shoulders whether we like it or not.

Mostly we don’t like it, which is why the President’s address betrayed such an extraordinary degree of discomfort on his part and why he kept insisting that, having “stopped Qaddafi’s deadly advance” (Mission Accomplished!), we have now handed off the leadership role to NATO. As The Daily Telegraph pointed out, “In transferring command and control to NATO, the US is turning over the reins to an organisation dominated by the US itself, both militarily and politically. In essence, the US runs the show that is taking over running the show.” He himself must know what a flimsy charade is this “supporting role” he insists we are now playing — like calling it “kinetic military action” rather than war — even though the American media are unlikely to call him on it.

For me, the most surprising moment of his speech and the one which suggests that he understands more of what he is doing than he is prepared, for political reasons, to let on, is his belated embrace of American exceptionalism. In response to critics who say America cannot be the world’s policeman he replies that

to brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

If only one could venture to hope that his leadership might bring the blame-America-firsters and the anti-war left along with him back into the fold of bipartisan acceptance of American hegemony and responsibility for world order. I’m not betting on it, however.

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