Though it has been badly shaken by President Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan (and dramatically ratchet up both drone strikes, and, or so it seems, anyway, covert operations in Pakistan), the liberal internationalist narrative about American power has emphasized the discontinuities between the Bush and Obama administrations. On this account, the United States under President Bush over-reached radically—taking advantage of the country's continuing belief in its own exceptionalism and the goodness of its intentions; its undeniable role as the world's sole military superpower and status as the issuer of the world's reserve currency; and its unique capacity to use both its hard and soft power to globally constructive ends to pursue overly-militarized, unilateralist policies that could only lessen the leadership America had exercised since the end of World War II. All of this was at the dawn of a multi-polar world age in which it was inevitable that U.S. power and influence would diminish, at least comparatively.
Despite their (willful?) blindness to the striking continuities between candidate Obama's positions on foreign policy and those of President Bush, liberal advocates did see quite clearly that the United States of the early-21st century simply could not impose its will on the rest of the world as it had done in the past. What seemed most welcome to them was that Obama seemed committed to restoring America's moral authority, which they argued, had been squandered by the Bush administration through its promiscuous use of military force; its legendary disregard for the "decent opinions of mankind"; and its delusional mindset that started from the premise that America could impose its will on allies and enemies alike as completely as it had (supposedly) been able to do during the Cold War.
And, in fairness, this was indeed the line that candidate Obama returned to during the 2008 campaign, and the line that President Obama has emphasized many times in many speeches during the year he has been in office—most notably in his December speech at West Point and when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. At West Point, he argued that the strength of America's values are "the source, the moral source of America's authority." It remains an open question whether he was doing more than paying lip-service to his administration undertaking a serious re-set of U.S. foreign policy—as many liberals still hope and believe—or whether—as I believe—this values talk was a way of trying to provide the National Security State and America's informal empire, which long predates and alas will probably long outlast the cumulative tenures of both presidents Bush and Obama, with a moral warrant (or moral flag of convenience, depending on your view). That is, at least until nemesis comes knocking, as it will.
What is more interesting to me is why both liberals who continue to have high hopes for the president's commitment to seriously rethink foreign policy and those who now see him, to put it charitably, as a figure whose resolve and commitment are dramatically out of sync with his opinions and good intentions, seem to find the invocation of America's moral authority credible, let alone dispositive, to use one of Vice President Biden's favorite adjectives? After all, the normative understanding of moral authority is that it is something that can be possessed by religious institutions, leaders of those institutions, or individuals, whether believers or non-believers, who are viewed as moral exemplars, but emphatically not by secular states—particularly imperial ones like America whose record in the world, viewed dispassionately, is a mixed one: abominable in Latin America, pretty awful in Asia, disastrous in the Middle East, ambiguous in Africa, and quite good in Europe. So while it is clearly not a category mistake for Catholics to hold that the Pope has moral authority, what can it possibly mean for President Obama to speak of the United States' moral authority?
The answer, alas, is simple: On a very profound level, this assumption is one more piece of the collateral damage from the pernicious creed of American exceptionalism—the profoundly ingrained belief in this country that, as Damon Linker has put it, the United States has been "empowered by providence to bring democracy, liberty, and Christian redemption to the world." President Bush certainly thought this; we know this because he said similar things on many occasions, most eloquently in his Second Inaugural. And of course, President Obama and his “progressive” supporters would for the most part omit the religious dimension. But that does not make their narrative any less theological—not, of course, in the creedal sense, but in the typological one that the great conservative philosopher (and former Marxist) Leszek Kolakowski employed when he described Marxism as a chapter in the history of religion —a secular eschatology, which is "a doctrine of human salvation presented in pseudo-scientific terms."
The term “category-mistake” was coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in the late 1940s. It is conventionally defined as ascribing a property to a thing that cannot possibly have that property. A classic, Philosophy 101 example is that to say a horse is a biped is a mistake, but to say that a horse is binary is a category mistake; and, as such, far more serious because it is not an error of perception or knowledge, but a fundamental misunderstanding of reality. Speaking of America's moral authority is just as serious a misunderstanding, but of course with real world consequences whose damage to the U.S. and to the world have been, and continue to be, incalculable.