Karl Rove's Distorted Ideas About American Exceptionalism

The GOP strategist misinforms talk radio listeners about Obama and misunderstands the relationship between might and right.

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Karl Rove theoretically represents everything that Tea Party-era conservatives hate. His early career consisted largely in sending out annoying political junk mail as a fundraising gambit, he graduated to running the sort of cynical, negative campaigns that cause regular Americans to regard political operatives as unethical people, and he is most famous for the role he played in helping to formulate George W. Bush's fiscally irresponsible, federal government expanding agenda. But in practice, the conservative movement elevates Washington, D.C., insiders so long as they assiduously cultivate the right partisan tribal affiliations, so you'll often see Rove treated as a fellow traveler when he's interviewed on the Fox News Channel or talk radio shows.

In his latest appearance on Hugh Hewitt's program, he opined on President Obama's foreign policy. It's a record I've criticized myself for its occasional illegality and unremarked upon short-sightedness. Rather than offer his own fact-based critique, Rove misinformed the audience in several ways.

Here is what he said:  


President Obama is seen by the American people, and more importantly, by other world leaders and important actors in the dramas in which we find ourselves, as weak. And his famous comment about yes, I believe in American exceptionalism just like I'm sure people in Honduras believe in Honduran exceptionalism, and Greek exceptionalism and British exceptionalism.

No, wait a minute, Mr. President. You don't get it. You just don't get it. America is a strong, powerful force on the world stage, because it is an exceptional country. And so yes, the Republican...President Obama seems to think that this is a big strength for him. And in politics, a lot of times, the things that people think are their strengths are actually their weaknesses. And foreign policy is actually a weakness for the President.
There is, in fact, Gallup data that shows exactly what Americans think of President Obama's foreign policy:

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On national defense, Afghanistan, and foreign affairs generally, more Americans approve of Obama's policies than disapprove of them. He gets low marks on relations with China and foreign trade. Though they don't appear on this list, safe to say Obama also enjoys high approval in his handling of Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Make of all that what you will.

The more glaring problem with Rove's comments was his mischaracterization of the president's beliefs about American exceptionalism. He is hardly alone in repeating this blatant untruth. Rove alludes to an Obama speech where he mentioned British and Greek exceptionalism (can anyone dispute, by the way, that these are exceptional nations in the history of western civilization, or that the citizens of those countries are well aware of their singularity?).

Anyway, here is a longer excerpt from Obama's remarks (emphasis added):

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And 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.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.

Put simply, yes, Obama believes in American exceptionalism, and offers in the above passage an impressively eloquent defense of the concept, given that it was offered off the cuff at a foreign press conference. What drives me nuts is the fact that his critics continue to cite those remarks as evidence that he doesn't believe in American exceptionalism by selectively quoting only the beginning. Of course, given the dirty political tricks Rove has pulled in his career, it should surprise no one that he would stoop this low, but I wish more interviewers would call him on it.

What's especially interesting about Rove's appearance is that Obama seems to have a better understanding of American exceptionalism than he does. The president properly emphasizes "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." Whereas Rove says, "America is a strong, powerful force on the world stage, because it is an exceptional country," as if superior values confer military might relative to rivals.

But wasn't the United States exceptional even when it was a small player on the world stage? Weren't military powerhouses like Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Soviet Russia exceptionally malign in their values, yet indisputably strong, powerful forces on the world stage? If Rove is going to lecture on American exceptionalism he should develop a more sophisticated understanding of it. Reading the rest of Obama's quote would be a good place to start.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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