Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) is an impressive man. A veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he was first elected to Congress in 2010 at the age of 32. He carries himself with an affable and congenial demeanor, and has exhibited a willingness to work across the aisle—all rare traits in a hyperpartisan Washington. His military service, like that of every American veteran, is deserving of the utmost respect. It’s unfortunate, then, that his foreign policy is so misguided.
In an hour-long conversation with the Wilson Center’s Jane Harmon Thursday morning, Rep. Kinzinger largely parroted the typical talking points in favor of increased American involvement in Afghanistan. Admittedly, the argument is as eloquent as it is familiar. As Kinzinger stated, “The mission of the United States of America is to be an example of self-governance to billions of people that don’t have what we have but are desperate for it.” According to Kinzinger, the Afghan people are clearly “desperate for it,” as “United States favorability in Afghanistan is around 70 or 80 percent.” Therefore, we must altruistically commit to “completing the mission,” however long it takes.
A commitment to “completing the mission” is certainly laudable, and it’s understandable that Kinzinger would couch foreign policy in these terms considering his military background. The problem, though, is that Kinzinger’s “American mission” is deeply flawed. America’s mission—insofar as it has one—is similar to that of any government: to care for the common good of the society over which it rules. Foreign policy, then, should stem from this domestically-based mission; a properly ordered understanding of government requires that foreign military involvement directly benefit the domestic common good. Kinzinger’s “mission” effectively inverts government responsibility, prioritizing the foreign over the domestic.
Much of this hawkish tendency can be attributed to a certain brand of American exceptionalism. Kinzinger is, in his own words, an “unabashed American exceptionalist,” which apparently means that we must meddle in as many regional conflicts as possible. While interventionism doesn’t exactly follow from American exceptionalism, it’s easy to see how this flawed reasoning has achieved such staying power.
American exceptionalism persists as a reason for interventionism because it is too often mistaken for patriotism. A healthy patriotism—even one that holds that America is “exceptional,” loosely defined—doesn’t require America to export a way of life around the globe, and especially not militarily. But when American patriotism includes the belief that every other country would be better off if they were just more like us, then questioning interventionism is, well, unpatriotic. And that’s one label no American wants.
So until American exceptionalism is no longer conflated with patriotism, until we abandon sweeping statements about the “mission of America,” we’re likely to see many more Adam Kinzingers pushing for American involvement in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and wherever else we deem anathema to the “American example of self-governence.”
As for a bipartisan group of congressmen raising questions about the American presence in Afghanistan? In Kinzinger’s eyes, they simply need a refresher on his version of the American Mission Statement.
Emile Doak is director of events and outreach at The American Conservative.