Gingrich's Version of American Exceptionalism Could Insult Our Allies

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In suggesting that other nations don't take the costs of war as seriously, the former House Speaker has made an unpresidential assertion

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Newt Gingrich is at the moment a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, so let's pay him the respect of taking him seriously. Let's imagine a president who could offend all current and potential allies in a minute or less.

Gingrich accomplished this by coming up with an unusual new definition of American exceptionalism at the end of last weekend's Christian-sponsored family forum in Iowa.

"My dad served 27 years in the army," he said. "I watched my mother through that whole period. World War II, Korea, Vietnam. I think what makes us different, and what makes us in some ways, when we have good leadership, much more ruthless and much tougher than any other country in world, is we don't send soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen to war. We send our children. We send our fathers. We send our brothers and sisters. We send our mothers. And therefore there's a preciousness to this decision unlike any other country I know of."

Gingrich's exceptional take appears to be rooted in his mother's worries about her husband's wartime military service. Apparently he can't imagine similar family dynamics outside our borders. Maybe Gingrich thinks militaries in other countries are made up of armed robots or clone troopers like the ones in the Grand Army of the Republic in Star Wars. Or maybe he was just riffing in a way he knew would please an audience steeped in home, hearth and exceptionalism.

Conservatives constantly allege that President Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism, a charge independent fact-checkers have repeatedly debunked. Obama gave his definition of American exceptionalism when asked at a 2009 press conference in France if he subscribed to the notion. He said yes -- that America is exceptional in its unmatched military capability, the size of its economy, and "a core set of values," including free speech and equality, that are enshrined in its Constitution, laws and democratic practices. He also said America has a "continued extraordinary role in leading the world."

Fact-checkers also have repeatedly shot down conservative charges that Obama goes around apologizing for America. The Washington Post Fact-Checker even called him on the carpet for "unsubstantiated boosterism," citing his frequent assertions that America has the best workers, finest universities and freest markets.

Conservatives nevertheless are on a tear to save American exceptionalism, or at least their view of it, from the likes of Obama. And Gingrich has been in the forefront. In June he published a book called "A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters." He and his wife, Callista, produced and co-star in a 2011 documentary called "A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism."

A trailer for the film describes exceptionalism as the idea that America is "more open, more vigorous, more optimistic than other nations." Gingrich's own personal definition has more to do with God and small government, which happen to be lodestars for conservatives. His starting point is the Declaration of Independence, which says the creator has endowed "all men" with "certain unalienable rights," including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. "What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you. You are personally sovereign. So you're always a citizen, never a subject," Gingrich said at a South Carolina forum in September. That means, he added, that "no politician, no bureaucrat, no judge" can take those rights away.

One could argue forever, and we will, about the texts of our founding documents and the intent of those who wrote them; about the role of government and the tension between individual rights and the government's duty, as per the Constitution, to "promote the general welfare." And it is well within campaign bounds for Gingrich, Mitt Romney and the rest of the GOP field to vigorously challenge Obama's views on exceptionalism, freedom and the common good.

But when it comes to diplomacy and national security, self-congratulation and hubris don't seem like a recipe for success. In France, Obama prefaced his answer on American exceptionalism by saying that he suspected "the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Gingrich and others have skewered him for this statement and usually fail to include the rest of what he said. Yet it seemed clear that Obama was using a little joke about human nature to take the edge off what he went on to say -- that other countries have wonderful qualities and good ideas, but really, the United States is the biggest and the best.

Would President Gingrich tell the Turks, Chinese, Europeans, or Indians that they don't believe in liberty or -- even worse -- that they don't care much about the human toll of war? How willing would other countries then be to participate in an invasion of Iraq; to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda; to work with the United States to dislodge Gaddhafi and contain the Iranian nuclear threat?

Gingrich's assertion that America is No. 1 in caring about those we send to war was just one of countless eyebrow-raising statements he's made in his decades-long political career. But it's one thing for him to call Obama a socialist with a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" world view. It's another for him to cavalierly dismiss the sacrifices and capabilities of America's allies. This is hardly what you'd expect to hear from a potential president.

Image credit: Adam Hunger / Reuters

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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