Recently, a French television program, featuring political humor, called on its viewers to inundate Fox News with emails about its obviously false reports, made since 2006, that there were “no-go zones” in Britain and France, where Muslims controlled.
Thousand of emails flooded Fox, and the station apologized, admitting that such zones do not exist.
Meanwhile, the French government took steps to ban the publication on “racist” commentary, a form of government censorship.
All of this came in the wake of the terrorist killing of French cartoonists, whose drawings of the Prophet Mohammed offended Muslims.
The American government cannot censor Fox News if it makes false reports, and virtually nobody believes it should. But Fox can and, in this case, did react to pressure from thousands of people in the United States, France and Britain, finally retracting and apologizing for its phony news.
The “no-go zone” story proves a point about the U.S. When it comes to freedom of expression, probably no country in the world comes close to the broad protection against government power provided in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, there are limits, like “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” as the Supreme Court once said.
At home and in many places around the world, people believe in American “exceptionalism” – the special place occupied by the U.S. in the world. The First Amendment provides support for that belief.
The Obama administration has been criticized, though not by France, for failing to send a high-ranking representative to Paris to march with other world leaders in support of free expression in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. On the scene, that representative would have had to link arms with hypocrites on free speech issues.
But, because of America’s special role, it should have been in the line of march. Given America’s special standing, the presence of a U.S. representative would have elevated and emphasized the value of free speech.
While the United States continues to play the leading role in the world, it has lost influence because of a lack of understanding of the symbolism of leadership.
President Obama recognizes that limits exist to American power and that the United States does not always live up to its own values. His beliefs on these points and his laid-back personal style undermine the symbolic role that gives hope and encouragement to people both in the United States and abroad.
Of course, belief in American exceptionalism can go too far. Sen. John McCain, Obama’s GOP rival for the White House in 2008, seems to propose U.S. military involvement to resolve conflicts just as soon as they pop up.
That suggests the United States is the world’s policeman, responsible to impose order and democratic government, whenever a repressive regime is challenged by some of its own people.
It is true that, almost alone, the United States has the ability to project its power anywhere in the world on short notice. The American dollar remains the standard world currency, a sign of its economic strength and reliability. That makes it a powerful symbol.
But limited finances and incomplete understanding of situations on the ground can lead the United States to attempt more than it can reasonably accomplish.
For example, the American response to Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack was appropriate. Going into Afghanistan to punish Al Qaeda, its leadership and Taliban supporters made sense. But trying to impose a unified, democratic government in Afghanistan, a country with no real history as a nation and with a tradition of warlord rule, led to America’s longest war without a clear result.
Invading Iraq and intervening in Libya may have seemed to some as an appropriate use of American power, but, as in Afghanistan, the U.S. had little sense of where events would lead.
These conclusions do not mean the U.S. should abandon its leadership role in the world. That’s not desirable or practical. But in projecting its power, it could better define its objectives, ones that would stand a reasonable chance of success.
Instead of attempting to bring about wholesale change abroad, usually by trying to turn every rebellion into revolution, the U.S. might focus more on fixing problems rather than on complete political reform.
For example, in Syria, by jumping to take sides in a conflict in which it could not project much force, the U.S. lost the ability to bring an early halt to bloodshed and destruction.
Defining American goals better plus a more forceful assertion of our values could be the best ways to reflect the country’s exceptional role.