Last month, I argued that many conservatives were failing to take Barack Obama seriously—in their attacks on his golfing and their presumption he was in over his head, they were failing to grasp that Obama might be a world-historical figure who would change the trajectory of the American polity as significantly as Ronald Reagan did.
Liberals rather enjoyed this point before they came upon the sentence in which I said that Obama’s “anti-exceptionalist foreign policy is setting the world on a course for nihilistic chaos.” This was deemed an unserious attack, and therefore any argument I was making that it was “Time to Get Serious” (the title of the piece) was disqualified. My critics were right, in the sense that I was guilty of making a point too complicated to be thrown away in a single clause. So let me try to make the case at greater length.
First, here’s the case I was not making. I was not saying that Obama’s goal, intention, or purpose in foreign policy was to sow “nihilistic chaos.” Not only would that be libel, it would also be historically false. The “nihilistic chaos” that might be developing did not begin with Obama’s presidency, will not (at least I pray not) come to fruition during his presidency, and will probably fester a bit more in the years following his departure from office before it becomes manifest.
The forces threatening nihilistic chaos are (a) predatory stateless actors and the weak states that are their special prey, (b) ruthless states looking to press advantage as never before with weapons of mass destruction, (c) ideological socio-religious movements whose visceral power overwhelms whatever little Western, liberal-democratic resistance there might be to them.
And this is where the ideological slant of the Obama presidency poses a particular problem. The president came into office with the conviction that “American exceptionalism” is a national delusion. If we hold to a national belief that we are exceptional, the president said, we are no different from the Britons and the Greeks and other peoples, who believe the same about their own countries.
But American exceptionalism is precisely not a nationalist concept. It is the notion that the United States is unique in the annals of history because it is based in ideas—ideas about the nature of humankind and the centrality of justice. These ideas are universal in nature, based in the belief that all people are free by nature and live in unfreedom due to tyrannical power only. And because these ideas are universal, it is part of the American exceptionalist creed to evangelize for them beyond our borders.
The president is allergic to this evangelical role; he believes it is arrogant, unseemly, and unbecoming for a nation that has yet to heal all its own wounds. But what happens when an American president does not believe that there is an innate moral quality to American action in the world outside its borders? He leaves unaddressed the anti-American critique levied by the foes of liberty and justice that the United States is a cause if not the primary cause of the world’s ills.
This is an argument that must be made every second of every day, because the foes are making theirs relentlessly. When President Obama does not, he makes it appear as though he and the nation he leads are unilaterally withdrawing from the war of ideas. That withdrawal is therefore giving the forces of disorder and decay and evil a dangerous and disastrous opening that they will surely exploit. Even here, I credit Obama for being a serious man, because his thinking is very much a part of a foreign-policy tradition with a distinguished provenance.
That tradition is wrong—dangerously wrong, disastrously wrong—but serious. Deadly serious.