In his speech about Libya the other night, President Obama hit all the right patriotic notes. After all, he was selling something, and there’s no better way to move merchandise than to butter up your customers.
Americans like to hear that they are an exceptional nation, and Obama, who has often been accused by conservatives of not properly accepting this notion, turned the tables and presented our exceptionalism as the key justification for intervening in the Libyan conflict.
For us to stand by and let Gadhafi massacre his own people, he asserted, would be to violate our very character as a people. It’s true that of all nations, we’re the ones most likely to involve ourselves militarily to protect the human rights of others, on the premise that to allow someone else’s rights to be trampled puts those of all in jeopardy.
While we can all agree that we’re something special, let us not confuse that with being a nation of saints. Sometimes, in order to preserve our security, we’ve had to hold our noses and prop up a few despots while violating some of our sacred principles. Just ask the Egyptians, the Filipinos and a few Latin American banana republics, to offer but a handful of examples.
The reasoning here is that we ought not to allow unrealistically (and naively) principled behavior to be the enemy of good outcomes. By making deals with the devil now and then, we can survive for another day to save the future for what we believe in. We come off a little tarnished, but the principle remains pure. Other peoples might cynically call this “hypocrisy,” but we know better.
Lord Palmerston famously said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests.” Thanks to our military might and our founding ideology, we can, alone among nations, afford the luxury of making the preservation of universal human rights one of those permanent interests. And being human ourselves, we are sometimes less than perfect about upholding them.