Squanderer in chief

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic.

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. Besides, American exceptionalism is demonstrable -- Cuban journalists, Chinese political dissidents, Eastern Europeans once again living in the shadow of a belligerent Russia and, yes, even some Brits and Greeks look toward the U.S. and nowhere else to defend freedom.


Viewed within the context of the first 100 days of his presidency, Obama’s nonsensical statement is part of a disturbing pattern. Since swearing the oath of office, our president has traveled the world criticizing his predecessor, confessing America’s supposed sins and otherwise flagellating the nation he leads on the altar of international “public opinion.”

Obama delivered his first collective mea culpa on our behalf in an interview with the Arab Al Arabiya television network, in which he said that he hoped to “restore” the “same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.” (Would that be when Iranian revolutionaries held our embassy hostage for 444 days?) Obama neglected to identify what exactly had caused the rift between the United States and the “Muslim world,” leaving his audience to believe that Islamic radicalism is as much our fault as it is of the Islamic radicals themselves.

But that was a mild beginning. Obama waited to ramp up the apologetics until his first trip overseas. In Strasbourg, France, he said the United States had “failed to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world” and that “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.” Never mind the questionable basis of these statements (even if Europe played a “leading role in the world,” which it hasn’t since nearly destroying itself 60 years ago, how have Americans “failed to appreciate” it?). More troubling was the impropriety of Obama’s willingness to attack President George W. Bush in an obvious gambit to curry favor with Europeans.

Not content with faulting Americans for their arrogance (in France, no less!), Obama delivered a speech in Prague days later where he offered a not-so-subtle apology for America’s use of nuclear weapons in World War II. “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act” in furtherance of total disarmament, he said.

Yet the use of the atomic bomb in ending the war with Japan saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and America’s possession of nuclear weapons prevented the Cold War from becoming bloodier. More unsettling, however, was the implication that the U.S., and not regimes that have illicitly sought such technology, is at fault for nuclear proliferation.

Obama apologized some more in Turkey. “I know that the trust that binds us has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. Let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not at war with Islam.”


Here, Obama seamlessly joined the Bush administration’s irritation at Ankara’s refusal to allow American troops’ passage to Iraq with the bogus claim that the United States has, until Obama’s presence in the White House, been “at war with Islam,” an assertion that essentially (and falsely) blames Bush for declaring such a war.

When not establishing false premises about the previous administration (the easier to glorify his own) or apologizing for his country, Obama has shown unusual deference to autocrats. At the Summit of the Americas, he calmly sat through a 50-minute anti-American tirade by the communist leader of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, and was disturbingly ebullient in glad-handing Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez. There’s nothing wrong with the president participating in a multilateral summit where criticism, even egregiously unfair criticism, of the U.S. is expressed. But if he can sit and take verbal abuse from Latin American demagogues, then surely speaking a little truth in response to their lies is appropriate.

It was plenty controversial when, years into his ex-presidency, Jimmy Carter publicized his critique of U.S. policy by meeting with hostile governments to conduct freelance diplomacy. In 1994, Carter traveled to North Korea, called its then-dictator, Kim Il Sung, a “vigorous and intelligent” man, and took the Clinton administration by surprise, negotiating a deal empowering Kim to continue his nascent nuclear program. But Carter at least waited until he left the White House before denigrating his country.

The ill effects of Obama’s obsequious behavior will not be immediate. His friendly handshake with Chavez will not suddenly lead to the closing of more opposition radio stations in Venezuela, nor will his bemoaning American arrogance in Europe lead to more Russian aggression tomorrow.

But Obama’s fecklessness emboldens our adversaries and discourages advocates of liberty around the world. The consequences will be felt in damage to American prestige. As much as liberals like to claim that Bush “squandered” America’s reputation, Obama is doubling that offense by setting up his country -- rhetorically and materially -- to be overtaken by other powers on the international stage. He is paving the way for America’s decline.