Dear President Putin,
First, thanks for trying to get the chemical weapons removed from Syria. Infinitely better than an American air strike.
But I’m writing in reference to your comments about American exceptionalism.
When I first read yesterday’s op-ed, without first having read President Obama’s words, I had a sinking feeling you might be right: in using the words “American exceptionalism” Obama sounded arrogant.
But I changed my mind.
Let’s get our definitions straight: I’m with those who define American exceptionalism to mean that America is “distinct,” not “superior.” But however you interpret the term, President Obama did not say or imply that our policy is “what makes America different. … what makes us exceptional.” BTW, you were kind not to mention that we don’t exactly have a policy.
Obama’s point is that America is exceptional, as in distinct, because we are moved to act when innocent people get gassed by their leaders. The language of right and wrong is at this nation’s core. It does make us distinct.
Much is written about the contradictions and denials of our founders, the men who spoke such words. Less about the fact that they knew it would be incredibly difficult to sustain a form of government in which ideas and principle matter. Here’s how Thomas Jefferson put it:
A government regulating itself by what is wise and just for the many, uninfluenced by the local and selfish views of the few who direct their affairs, has not been seen perhaps on earth. Or if it existed, for a moment, at the birth of ours, it would not be easy to fix the term of its continuance…
For a moment! That’s how hard they knew it would be!
And as imperfectly as we show it, the notion of “wise and just for the many” matters to many of us.
As you say, we live in a diverse world. There is room for lots of exceptionalism.
If you believe it’s wrong for leaders to slaughter the people they’re supposed to lead, get the weapons destroyed. Give the world something to talk about two hundred years from now. Go ahead. Be exceptional.