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Not simply risky in that he is trying to create an integrated Middle Eastern policy when the issues involved are so complicated and so volatile (and the grievances so intractable). But also because by applying specifically religious language to the situation he runs the risk of exacerbating the tensions in the region that run so deeply along religious lines. (On the other hand, by emphasizing the important of connections among all Muslims, Obama may have some success in reducing the conflicts along national, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines.)
The importance of studying U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is that all carefully considered information and theories about this subject, by adding to the marketplace of ideas, help even if only incidentally to move the world towards a more rational (and equitable) set of policies in the region (Dworkin, 1996, pp. 46; Hanania, 2009).
The thesis that I will be testing in this research is the extent to which the idea of American exceptionalism remains integral to the stance that the Obama Administration is taking. As different as is Obama's rhetoric (and using this word in a fairly technical sense rather than in a pejorative way) from that of Bush -- or, for that matter, from that of Clinton -- I believe that there is still at its core a sense of exceptionalism, which is simply the idea that Americans and America are in some fundamental way unique that the U.S. As a nation has the ability to do things that no other nation can. What makes this topic of research difficult (and what makes creating foreign policy along this philosophy even more difficult) is that as the only superpower America is unique, as Ignatieff (2005, pp. 101-103) writes. (Also relevant to this point are Lipset, 1997; Lipset, 2002, and Noble, 2002, and Evans, 2009.)
There are topics on which so little is written or even known that it is difficult to do any research on them. Then there are topics -- and this is surely one of them -- about which there is an embarrassment of riches.
Well, to some extent that is the case. There is certainly a close-to-infinite number of reports, commentaries, assessments, etc. On Obama's Middle Eastern policies (as well as on all other areas of his presidency). This does not, however, necessarily translate into an equal abundance of usable information. It should not be surprising that much of the coverage of Obama's Middle East policy is as vituperative (and as inaccurate in important ways) as the feelings of the Middle Eastern participants themselves (viz. Hadar, 2009; Levy, 2009; Benoit, 2009 -- all of whom at times venture far beyond the merely partisan). Even those who are honestly engaged in trying to bring light to the debate often become embroiled in very ugly dialogues because of the people they are responding to. Still, there is also a great deal that has been written on this issue -- some of it already in book form, although most of it during this first year of the Obama Administration still in the form of journalism -- that provides valuable information.
In assessing Obama's Middle East policy there are at least two distinct levels of analysis that are possible. The first is to examine what might be seen as a relatively factual level, to lay out what the United States' goals in the area are and to determine, through various generally agreed-upon metrics, how much progress the Obama Administration is making towards those goals (viz. Chittenden, Rogers, & Smith, 2003). Levy (2009) presents the kind of analysis that one might build upon in this type of an approach:
If the goal still is Israel's security, recognition, and a guaranteed future as a democracy and a Jewish national home, alongside a secure, viable, and post-occupation Palestine and advancing America's national interest, and this should be the goal, then a new path is needed for reaching that destination. It will certainly require more international and U.S. lifting. (Levy 2009)
However, while this level of analysis -- of how closely the Obama Administration comes to meeting certain benchmarks (such as no more Israeli settlements, one of the points that Obama made in his June 2, 2009, speech) is certainly useful, it seems to me to be less theoretically interesting than the project that I am proposing, which is an examination of whether American foreign policy will become less or more defined by a fundamental grounding on exceptionalism (Roberts, 2009). A further question -- and one not often enough considered recently with sufficient seriousness, I believe, is whether it is possible for American exceptionalism to guide American foreign policy in a way that is beneficial for both Americans and others (Mearsheimer, 2007).
Conservative commentators during both the last administration and now into this one have been (in general) quite happy to support the idea of American exceptionalism -- of the necessity of America's taking the lead in the world because it is the only nation that is qualified to do so. (Indeed, one might argue that neo-conservatism is in fact a one-trick pony, with that pony being American exceptionalism.) But while neo-conservatives may have given exceptionalism a bad name (this is -- of course -- a somewhat flippant simplification), it is possible that there might be a more enlightened form of exceptionalism. Zbigniew Brzezinski (Carter's national security advisor) outlined what might be considered what might be this more enlightened version of American exceptionalism when he commented on Obama's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize:
He deserves it because, in the course of less than a year, he really has refined America's relationship with the world. He has grandly improved America's image in the world. He has committed America to a series of policies designed to resolve conflicts and to deal in a non-unilateral fashion with key issues. And he has committed America to grand goals in the area of nuclear weaponry, global problems and so forth. (How the Peace Prize Could Affect Obama's Presidency, 2009)
When I wrote that this "might" be a more enlightened version of exceptionalism I was being quite literal: I do not whether it would be or not. That is something that will only become clear in time. I wonder at this point to what extent the Obama Administration itself has decided to commit to a policy that has so much to do with that of the previous administration.
The most difficult part of the task in examining the issue of whether Obama will begin to rely more and more on an idea of American exceptionalism (which would also, I believe, shift him more and more towards a focus on Israel and Palestine, an epicenter of American exceptionalism) is the sheer amount of information that exists (Kampeas, 2009). Given that (as noted above) so much of this information is of dubious value for reality-based research I shall focus on an examination of official sources to determine whether the Obama Administration is indeed shifting (or returning) to a foreign policy that is based more firmly on the idea of American exceptionalism. (Edwords, 1987, actually provides an interesting analysis of the fluctuations of the idea of exceptionalism, as do
An examination of the statements of Obama officials (including the president himself), especially U.S. State Department publications and statements, will allow me to trace the trajectory of this administration in terms of how much (or little) distance Obama will put between himself and the doctrine of American exceptionalism. I will also be able to examine the ways in which Obama's language about the uniqueness of America meshes with the other themes that I have discussed here. (For example, the idea that the United States has the power and authority to forge a bond with the entire Muslim world contains more than a grain of American exceptionalism.)
I will base my analysis both on the semantic content of U.S. official statements (looking at the language used to describe American goals overseas) as well as on the content. In other words, I will assess both the symbols and the substance of Obama's Middle Eastern policy.
List of References
Bender, Thomas, 2006. A nation among nations: America's place in world history. London: Hill & Wang.
Benoit, Sammy, 2009, November 10. Obama's Middle East Policy Falls Apart . [Online]. http://docstalk.blogspot.com/2009/11/obamas-middle-east-policy-falls-apart.html. [Accessed 5 December 2009].
Chittenden, M., Rogers, L. & Smith, D., 2003. Focus: 'Targetitis ails NHS. Times Online. [Online]. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,11-1506-669.html. [Accessed 3 December 2009].
Corsi, Jerome, 2009. Why Israel Can't Wait: The Coming War Between Israel and Iran. Los Angeles: Threshold.
Dworkin, Ronald W., 1996. The Rise of the Imperial Self. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Edwords, Frederick, 1987, November/December. The religious character of American patriotism. The Humanist magazine, pp. 20-4, 36.
Evans, Mike. (2009). Jimmy Carter: The Liberal Left and World Chaos: A Carter/Obama Plan That Will Not Work. New York.
Hadar, Leon, 2009, November 23. Obama, the Teabaggers and Foreign Policy. [Online]. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leon-t-hadar/obama-the-teabaggers-and_b_367893.html…[continue]
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