WHY DOES THE LA TIMES RUN PIECES LIKE THESE?…. President Obama has made a concerted effort to improve the nation’s standing in the world, reestablishing ties with allies that have frayed in recent years. Conservative media hacks are not only livid about the president’s efforts, but have also begun repeating a hackneyed talking point: Obama has gone on an “apology tour.”
With that in mind, the perpetually frustrating James Kirchick has a column in today’s LA Times, repeating many of the now-tired canards, including a ridiculous line accusing the president of being “disturbingly ebullient in glad-handing” Hugo Chavez. Indeed, it was filled with a series of nonsensical attacks against Obama, accusing him of “emboldening” U.S. enemies, “squandering” America’s reputation, and “paving the way for America’s decline.”
If Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and a few RNC interns got together to write a fundraising letter, it would read something like this.
But this was the part of Kirchick’s op-ed that stood out for me:
At a stop on his grand global apology tour this spring, President Obama was asked by a reporter in France if he believed in “American exceptionalism.” This is the notion that our history as the world’s oldest democracy, our immigrant founding and our devotion to liberty endow the United States with a unique, providential role in world affairs.
Rather than endorse the proposition — as every president in recent memory has done one way or another — Obama offered a strange response: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
This is impossible. If all countries are “exceptional,” then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning.
I’d encourage readers to read exactly what President Obama said when asked about “American exceptionalism.” His response to the question was thoughtful and nuanced — and apparently went right over Kirchick’s head.
Indeed, the whole piece reflects a bizarre confusion about a) why the nation’s reputation declined under Bush/Cheney; b) how Obama is using diplomacy to improve the nation’s standing; and c) why it’s likely to work.
On American exceptionalism, the question carried with it some potential consequences. If Obama endorsed the concept of American exceptionalism, and explained during an overseas visit that he believes the U.S. is above all countries, he runs the risk of reinforcing the notion of American jingoism. American exceptionalism is, after all, a favorite of the neocons, and undergirds the idea that we operate on a different level than everyone else. But if Obama rejects the concept, he might give the impression that he sees his own country as less than special. His critics would pounce, insisting that to give up on American exceptionalism is to give up on America’s role as leader of the free world. The president’s careful response threaded the needle in ways that Kirchick didn’t understand.
What Kirchick doesn’t understand is that American exceptionalism means one thing to Americans and quite the opposite to most of the rest of the world, especially after the Bush fiasco. To Americans, it refers to our most obvious and unique strength — that ours is the only nation where citizenship is not dependent on ethnic identity, but on the willingness to subscribe to the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy. When we’re at our best, America tends to mean that to the rest of the world as well.
But in recent years, much of the rest of the world came to see American exceptionalism as a belief that we can make our own rules, make exceptions, as it were. We could unilaterally decide to make war in Iraq, withdraw from the global warming negotiations, allow India and Israel to abide by one set of rules when it came to nuclear proliferation and Iran to another. What Obama was actually saying was this: While America regards itself as extraordinary, we will no longer act on the international stage as if we are the ultimate repository of wisdom and righteousness.
Kirchick argues this kind of approach “paves the way for America’s decline.” I suspect he had it backwards.