We're finalizing the topics for our upcoming Forum season, and the subject of the US role in global affairs keeps appearing - in conversations, on the results of our season ballot and in the emails we receive. The issue is divisive in a much less intelligible way than most; in a political landscape galvanized by bi-partisanship, U.S. foreign policy seems to be a wild-card that claims both conservatives and liberals on both sides of the debate.
In last night's speech concerning Libya, President Obama attempted - and mostly succeeded - in avoiding bi-partisan politics altogether, deciding to approach the issue from a purely humanitarian standpoint. His argument tread lightly on the issue of national and global positioning (the "need to protect our interests") and heavily on the moral responsibilities of the world's most powerful nation. He was also very careful not to allow too many correlations between this campaign and the two wars he inherited, citing UN sanctions and global partnerships, as well as making clear that this campaign is one of defending innocent civilians - not implementing regime change - to distance himself from GW's more vigilante approach. Clearly, President Obama wants to posit America as a defender and cautious promoter of liberty, and not the careless, heavy hand of freedom.
The question, then, becomes one of the fundamental duty of powerful, free nations of the world in protecting civilians and holding the world to a strict moral code.
Here's what a few past Forum panelists have to say about Obama's speech:
Andrew Sullivan (A Conversation Between Bill Moyers and Andrew Sullivan, 2006)
"It wasn't Obama's finest oratory; but it was a very careful threading of a very small needle. That requires steady hands and calmer nerves than I possess. But this president emerges once again as a consolidator and adjuster of the past, not a revolutionary force for the future. And one hopes that the notion that he is not a subscriber to American exceptionalism is no longer seriously entertained. He clearly believes in that exceptionalism - and now will live with its onerous responsibilities."
Bob Woodward (A World of Change, 2010)
“The president has a mammoth management problem, there is deep unhappiness – as there should be – about do we know what’s going on in these countries. The intelligence agencies are scrambling because they cover the leaders and not the revolutionaries or rebels involved in this upheaval.”
Stephen Carter (The End of Civility?, 2010)
"Over the long run, the world is unlikely to be able to handle the responsibility President Obama has handed it. This in turn leads to the unspoken moral issue with which we might one day have to deal: What should we do when the world thinks we are wrong?"
Is it America's responsibility to act as the global catalyst for moral outrage and action? Should we turn to isolationism and focus on our own problems? Is there a middle ground?
What do YOU think?