05/01/2012 06:58 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Obama, Osama and the Cycle of Machismo

In her critique of Barack Obama's new campaign ad questioning whether Mitt Romney would have ordered the military strike that killed Osama bin Laden, Arianna Huffington urges the president to "refuse to continue the destructive 'who is more macho?' cycle of bravado." According to Huffington, this "toxic ploy... has had a deeply detrimental effect on the decisions of our leaders." It's one thing, she says, to exercise bold leadership in advancing the national interest, but quite another to tag a political opponent as lacking in machismo while conflating the absence of manliness with a lack of patriotism.

Having spent the past seven years writing a book about militarism and masculinity in American culture, I welcome Huffington's critique as a breath of fresh air. In the last passage of my book, I summarize my appraisal of martial machismo by arguing that, "It is a site where Americans lie to themselves about the suffering they inflict on one another and on others around the world. It is the lynchpin of a paranoid belief system that supports scapegoating at home and imperialism abroad. It is America at its worst, a place where the U.S. fails to live up to its highest democratic potential." So when it comes to the intersection of hyper-patriotism and machismo, I do not pull my punches. If anything, I might say that Huffington has understated the damage that emanates from this "toxic" intersection.

But in blaming President Obama for the perpetuation of the cycle of bravado, Huffington is perhaps shifting responsibility away from progressive activists and scholars who have failed to convince the public that the cycle is dangerous. Although it is an imperfect metaphor, should those concerned about the corrosive influence of money in our political system blame conservatives for blocking campaign finance restrictions as well as the Supreme Court for issuing its Citizens United ruling? Or should they target Obama allies for forming a Super PAC? In the current political and legal context, declining to form a Super PAC would amount to fighting with one hand tied behind the back.

Similarly, progressives cannot blame the president for our highly militarized culture in which masculinity has been conflated with martial violence and military prowess. The roots of that conflation go back more than a century, when Teddy Roosevelt and other imperialists framed U.S. participation in the Spanish-American War as an opportunity to restore what they perceived to be the nation's declining ruggedness and manliness. Nearly a generation later, when
Woodrow Wilson declined at first to involve the U.S. in World War I, Roosevelt said that he had "done more to emasculate American manhood... than anyone else I can think of." The roots of this tradition are so deep President Obama can't do much to soften it.

Given the glorified status of martial masculinity in American culture, it is unrealistic to expect our politicians, especially Democrats who did not serve in the military, to get out in front of public opinion by jumpstarting a national conversation about its dangers. Indeed, given the demise of the isolationist wing of the Republican party (with very few exceptions such as Ron Paul), progressive scholars and activists are the only people left who are somewhat well-positioned to lead this conversation.

What do progressives need to say to the American people? First, we need to demonstrate, based on objective research, that excessive military strength can undermine our security. Second, we need to show that when the U.S. sponsors dictators who torture their own people, this provides a breeding ground for terrorism. Third, we need to document and expose the many hidden costs of U.S. empire. A growing scholarly network is trying engage in precisely this work, but it will take a long time and a lot of effort to redirect the national conversation.

As a progressive, intellectual leader, Huffington is a hero of mine. And on a personal level, she has been unfailingly generous and gracious to me, having traveled to my host university to launch my research institute, and agreed to feature me as the first outside author in her new e-book series. I would also note that it takes real courage and integrity to publish authors who disagree with the boss, and it is a mark of professionalism that The Huffington Post is running the piece that you are reading now.

All that said, and while her critique of the cycle of bravado is commendable, we cannot expect the president to forgo an opportunity to give the GOP a dose of it own medicine. If we want to dissuade future presidents from making that move, we (progressive activists) have to move away from the safe option of simply supporting the troops and focus on the much more difficult, long-term task of convincing the American people that masculine military strength is dangerous. Until we prevail on that point, we cannot expect our elected leaders to do our work for us.