If we truly believe ourselves to be exceptional, a model for all the world and an example for all of history, then why would we practice torture?
That's what waterboarding is, and that's why President Barack Obama banned it — rightly. When you pour water onto someone until he gasps for air and feels as if he's drowning, you're not merely enhancing your interrogation. You're putting him through a hell as physical as it is psychological. You're torturing him, by any sane definition of the term.
And yet waterboarding was back up for discussion, and even back in a kind of perverse vogue last weekend at the same Republican presidential debate where Mitt Romney, pivoting to a favorite melody, sang the song of American greatness and singularity — American exceptionalism. That juxtaposition was odd in the extreme.
I came away from the debate, which was devoted to foreign policy, with all sorts of qualms and questions. But mostly I came away thinking that a great deal of what the candidates propose flies squarely in the face of the particular stripe of national pride they simultaneously trumpet.
This is a crowd that's big on exceptionalism, and not according to its onetime definition: as a reference to the peculiar and advantageous circumstances of our country's genesis. They're asserting that we have a unique global standing, our eminence essential and our values worthy of export.
"This century must be an American century," Romney said, and he digressed widely from the specific topic at hand to say it.
"We have a president right now who thinks America is just another nation," he added, not representing Obama's past remarks entirely fairly. "America is an exceptional nation."
Romney didn't get a chance to weigh in on waterboarding, so we don't know whether he actually favors its restored use, as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain said they did, and as Rick Perry seemed to signal as well.
But we know Romney doesn't consider it torture, because one of his senior aides, Eric Fehrnstrom, sent out a Twitter message after the debate saying flatly that it isn't, and a campaign spokeswoman confirmed that that was indeed Romney's own view. The spokeswoman added: "At the same time, he's not going to specify the enhanced interrogation techniques he would use against terrorists."
From the debate stage in South Carolina came not only calls for waterboarding — which Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, to their credit, rejected — but also the churlish suggestion that the United States withhold even the first dollar of foreign aid to a country until it proved itself wholly deserving. This came courtesy of Perry and Newt Gingrich.
From Rick Santorum there were warm thoughts of clandestine missions to kill Iranian scientists. Immigration wasn't discussed this time around, but when it has been in recent months, Cain has mentioned the digging of a moat along the Mexican border — filled with alligators, no less! — and Bachmann has been all about the ludicrously impractical construction of a fence, which Cain at one point suggested electrifying as an extra deterrent to anyone with thoughts of scaling it. Then he said he was joking. A belly laugh rose up from all seven continents.
Of course the candidates talk tough in large part as a way to accuse Obama of being soft. It's typical political posturing, inevitable political pandering.
But their oft-lofted notion that he has raised a white flag in the war on terror is absurd. While his presidency has had considerable flaws and disappointments, that's not one of them.
Yes, he ended waterboarding — which is also what John McCain, who has real moral authority on the issue, said he would do. (On Monday, McCain said he was "very disappointed" by the discussion at the debate.)
But Obama has dispatched more drones than Dick Cheney likely ever fantasized about, including the one that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen never given any trial. He ordered the mission that ended the life of Osama bin Laden. These aren't the actions of a commander in chief apologetic about the use of force. And they're proof that you can be plenty fearsome without whipping out the instruments of torture.
We face difficult decisions and a tricky balancing act when it comes to keeping this country safe, whether from terrorists abroad or criminals coming across the southern border. And there's no doubt we can't be as high-minded as we'd sometimes like. I, for one, am not losing any sleep over al-Awlaki.
But we have to be careful about how far we go — how merciless our strategies, how self-serving our positions — because the rightful burden of the leadership we insist on is behavior that's better than everybody else's, not the same or worse. Exceptionalism doesn't mean picking and choosing when to be big and when to be small.