Rick Santorum doesn't doubt that President Obama was born in this country, but he does doubt whether he believes in it. In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech Thursday, the likely presidential candidate argued that because Obama does not believe America plays a special role in the world, he is unfit to lead America.
Santorum's speech offered a 10-point plan for reviving American foreign policy, including protecting defense spending from cuts, support for Israel and better intelligence capabilities. At its heart though, the speech was guided by the notion that America can prosper only if its leader promotes the belief that it is a unique moral force in the world, promoting freedom and fighting evil in countries like Iran, Venezuela, and China. One of the problems with Obama, Santorum says, is that "he doesn't believe America is exceptional."
This is not a new charge. Several conservatives have made it (Mitt Romney has even reduced it to a bumper sticker: "Believe in America"). But when I talked to Santorum after his speech, however, the clear bright distinctions about ideas of freedom and America's role became less clear. As a political critique, the American exceptionalism claim is powerful. Upon examination, however, it loses much of its force.
Obama, who has spoken regularly since the early days of his campaign about the unique qualities of the American character, thinks America is exceptional. It's just that his definition of exceptional isn't the same as conservatives'. This is a legitimate debate—but it's not the same debate as whether the president believes in the idea at all.
"He was asked point blank whether he believed in American exceptionalism and his answer was people of every culture think they are exceptional," Santorum said of the president. A host of conservatives have cited this passage from an answer Obama gave at a press conference at a NATO summit in April 2009. The part of the answer they cite—and leave it at that—is when Obama says, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." So I asked the senator about the rest of Obama's answer, starting with the next sentence, in which he said: "I am enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world." Obama then listed the sacrifices Americans had made to make the world free, and concluded by saying that "America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world."
I asked Santorum about his claim that Obama believes "America had nothing to offer the world" given that, in the answer Santorum cites, the president also said: "I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional."
"Those are processes," said the former senator. "Yes those are processes, and I would agree that those processes are important, but what I talked about was the core concept of American exceptionalism not being in the Constitution but being in the Declaration of Independence. Which is the idea of limited government. And that the purpose of government is to create an opportunity for people to be free."
Santorum also said that Obama had apologized for America, though he couldn't cite a specific instance. Conservatives sometimes cite a line from Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009. "We sometimes make mistakes. We are not perfect." (There are other instances.) Yet Santorum himself, when talking about America as a "moral force," makes clear that America has not always been perfect. He pointed me to "caveats" in his speech when he talked about America as a moral enterprise. "It's a moral enterprise, but like any moral enterprise, you know we all fall short. … We don't always live up to those principles, but I think we have an obligation to strive to do so."
Substantively, if not rhetorically, this view is no different than the president's. Where Santorum and other conservatives disagree with the president is the instances in which America has fallen short. But that's a disagreement less severe than the broad charge that America is a failure.
By the end of our interview, Santorum had all but abandoned his textual analysis of Obama's remarks. "Politicians always give some sort of platitudes," he said. "What American president isn't going to say America is a great country? Of course he is going to say America is a great country. Or, America is an exceptional country." He suggested that Obama be judged on whether his actions were consistent with the idea that America should play a moral role in the world based on ideas of freedom that Santorum had outlined in his speech.
Hadn't the president just launched a military operation in Libya based in part on the same kind of moral imperatives Santorum had discussed in his speech? "There will be times … when our safety is not directly threatened but our interests and values are," Obama said in March. He talked about "our responsibilities to our fellow human beings," universal rights, and the core principles Americans share with those fighting Qaddafi. He cited America's unique history—"born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free."
Santorum dismissed the idea. "Why didn't he get involved when there was an opportunity four or five days into this conflict, when they were asking for our help; why didn't he get involved if freedom is the watch word?" He also wondered why, if the president cared about freedom, he stopped short of finishing the job and overthrowing Qaddafi.
Santorum's foreign policy vision, despite his talk of America's moral force and the obligation to support freedom, is a realist approach. He said he wasn't sure he would have intervened in Libya. The freedom of oppressed Libyan citizens was not reason enough. He also criticized the United States for not sticking with its longtime ally, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Substantively Santorum may be right, but if Obama failed in those cases it was in part because he put too much emphasis on supporting the aspirations of the protesters demanding freedom. He behaved like the kind of president Santorum said he would like to be.
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