The part where the president pointed out that we are not China. We cannot afford to remain who we are and take some detached, uber-realist view of the world. We do not just let atrocities happen. (Well, we do. But it’s true that it offends Americans, in our psyche, to stand aside when atrocities are taking place.) Values matter to the United States — even when our interests are unclear. We act on our perceived values and do not always take the kind of cold, calculating approach to things that some foreign policy analysts (myself, often, included) wish we would take. ~Andrew Exum

The more I think about this “America is different” argument, the more it drives me up the wall. It’s not just that it is a bad excuse to do the wrong thing (i.e., start a war). It’s not true! It didn’t offend most Americans in their psyches or anywhere else when Georgian forces launched Grad rockets on Tshkinvali’s sleeping civilian population, and it didn’t offend most of them in their psyches when Lebanon was treated as a bombing range in 2006, and it never even crossed their minds to feel anything when the Krajina Serbs fled from an advancing army that was committing atrocities against them. Considering that these actions were all carried out by U.S. allies, and in some cases using arms and training provided to them by the U.S., there should have been more offended American psyches rather than fewer, but this was not the case.

This isn’t because Americans are morally callous or indifferent to human suffering, but partly because all of these outrageous acts were usually presented to the American public as self-defense, or as an unfortunate but necessary action, or as a regrettable but understandable overreaction against the real “bad guys.” In some of these cases, many Americans might not have heard anything about it until much later once their opinions about the conflict had already formed and hardened, but even those that were aware of the harm that was being done to civilians during these operations either denied that they happened, blamed the victims, or shrugged them off. The point isn’t just that there are double standards for what allied governments do, which is obvious, but that Americans don’t have any greater impulse to prevent atrocities than any other nation, and the belief that “it offends Americans, in our psyche, to stand aside when atrocities are taking place” is another expression of that self-congratulation I was criticizing earlier today.

When government officials, journalists, and pundits present a situation as an atrocity or an atrocity-in-the-making, most of the public usually accepts the story. The story may be true or not, but what matters is how it and the relevant actors are presented to them. The less familiar they are with the situation, the more likely they are to believe the story. Gaddafi is someone the public already knows about, so it is easy for everyone to assume the worst. As Paul Pillar points out:

The overdrawn picture of how much blood of innocent Libyans would be shed if the regime had been allowed to proceed unmolested by foreign air power is, despite Qaddafi’s track record, only worst case speculation.

Did we remain “who we are” while “letting” those things happen in South Ossetia, Lebanon, and Croatia? I think we did. Perhaps if we had a less exalted opinion of “who we are,” we wouldn’t be so anxious about minding our own business and leaving other nations to sort out their internal affairs. I continue to hope that what “we” are doing in Libya is definitely not a reflection of who we are as a people. Perhaps if we had less ambition to vindicate our “values” around the world whenever possible, we might do a better job of securing our interests and otherwise leaving other nations in peace.

No, we aren’t China, but there are a lot of perfectly decent governments that aren’t China, either, and they don’t feel the need to meddle in every crisis that shows up on television. Notice that no one ever says, “We aren’t India,” because someone might wonder what would be so terrible about being a large democracy that refrains from plunging into wars even when it has cause to do so. We are always asked to choose between hyper-active “values”-saturated empire or Chinese amorality. Now that’s a false choice.