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Reader riposte: American exceptionalism

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14 September 2012 13:37

Hugh Wyndham writes:

Jerry Nockles' article is a very timely piece on the differences between the Obama and Romney visions of the role of the United States. I do not disagree with his distinctions, but I think the differences are more profound than he states.

The Republicans criticise Obama, for example, for 'leading from behind' on Iraq. They think he should be more robust on Iran and on Syria. 'If we can do it in Libya, why not Syria.' They blame Obama for encouraging the 'Arab Spring' because it allowed access to power of Islamic parties who succeeded in elections.

To those now dominating Republican thinking, 'leadership' means being out in front and having others follow. They have made a virtue of not consulting friends and allies (domestically as well as internationally). As one Republican politician said not long ago, in the domestic context, his idea of compromise is when the other side adopts his side's line of thinking. In the Republican primaries, long-standing senior party figures lost because they were accused of being compromisers. This line of thinking is exported into their thinking about international affairs. What many people think was an exemplary NATO response to the situation in Libya is criticised because the United States was not out in front, leading the charge and doing all the bombing.

Obama, in contrast, has been a coalition-builder internationally, in a similar way to Bush senior. But he has not shied away from operations on his own. The approach of the US to China currently is an example. The drone campaign against al Qaeda is another. The attack on the bin Laden compound is a third. He gets no credit from Republicans for these things.

What never fails to amaze me is the yawning gap between American political reality and its rhetoric; Jerry's quotations from Rice and Ryan are good examples. With all the past, present and likely future contribution of the United States to the world — which gives substance to its claim to exceptionalism — there are fierce debates under way in the US today about laws which effectively limit the right to vote of the poor and minorities, issues about women's health which many thought settled decades ago are again in play, capital punishment is imposed on more people than in any other country other than China and death by firearm is about 15 times more likely in the US than in Australia.

The United States has so much to contribute to the world. I just wish that it would look hard in the mirror occasionally.

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