Presidential Mojo No Substitute for Understanding America

Marion Smith /

Almost two years ago, after President Obama’s obsequious bow before a Saudi prince, many Americans began to wonder whether this “citizen of the world” knew what he was doing with America’s foreign policy. The passage of time has revealed a stunning lack of diplomatic sophistication and a dangerous misunderstanding of America’s role in the world.

In a new issue of Foreign Policy magazine, foreign policy experts offer President Obama a “Plan B” to supplement the White House’s incoherent and ineffective foreign policy agenda – in their words, to help the president “find his mojo again.” But has Barack Obama ever had this certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to American diplomacy?

As a presidential candidate, Obama so resolutely criticized American foreign policy and expressed such confidence in his persuasive abilities that many people came to expect that he held the secret to global harmony, a secret that had eluded so many of America’s past statesmen. But two years of apology-based diplomacy have revealed the failures of a foreign policy that refuses to see the world as it is.

President Obama and his closest White House advisors also fundamentally misunderstand America, so it is no surprise that they misunderstand the role of American diplomacy in the world. According to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s remarks at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday, the biggest foreign policy difference between Congressional Republicans and the Obama administration hinges on a basic question: “Whether or not America is an exceptional country.”
Responding to a journalist during an April 2009 trip to Strasbourg, France, Obama declared:  “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In essence, President Obama does not believe that America is exceptional among the nations of the earth.

This understanding signals an historic shift in how U.S. presidents talk about America, and has real-world ramifications for a host of U.S. foreign policy issues. Despite multiple overtures to the Iranian regime, Iran is moving rapidly toward nuclear armament. Despite an exhilarating and hopeful speech in Ankara last year, Turkey (America’s NATO ally) now seems determined to undermine U.S. interests in the region. The administration’s actions in the Middle East have also alienated the United States’ close partner in the region, Israel. And despite good intentions, the reset button with Russia appears to be disconnected from reality. In a reversal of Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength policy, Obama has embraced a foreign policy of peace through apology.

In a show of weakness this summer, the U.S. remained remarkably silent about government crackdowns on Christians and Shia Muslims in Morocco, one of America’s closest Arab allies. The Moroccan government kicked out Christian aid workers who ran an orphanage in Morocco, on the grounds that they were converting orphans to Christianity. The sound of America’s voice in support of religious freedom for persecuted religious minorities should be just as loud as the President’s apology for America’s past imperfections. Actually, it should be much louder, since America’s voice can actually make a difference in remedying current injustices.

But such assertions require the confidence that America’s principles of religious, political, and economic liberty are fundamentally superior to those of nations that practice oppression. This confidence in the superiority of America’s principles and history of promoting those principles abroad is apparently not held by the current president.

For a robust diplomacy that represents American interests and ideals, U.S. officials have to understand the essence of America. In a new series published by The Heritage Foundation, Matthew Spalding offers his own advice – stop misunderstanding America! Consider his piece a primer for anyone – including sitting presidents – who can’t quite wrap their mind around the idea that America has had and should continue to have an exceptional role to play in the world.

Apparently one needs more than a tropical birthplace, a stamp-filled passport, and a cosmopolitan flair in order to successfully represent the United States among the world’s different countries and cultures. One needs an understanding of the impressive history and principles of American statecraft and the humility to see the world as it is.