For the past year, President Obama’s Republican opponents have relied on two main myths to organize their myriad complaints against his administration. The first is that Obama has rejected American exceptionalism despite his repeated statements emphasizing his belief in the unique and unparalleled role of America in the world and his conviction that his personal story would have been possible nowhere else. The second, equally false idea is that Obama’s foreign policy has been a series of insults to America’s allies and a string of humiliating and dangerous capitulations to our enemies and rivals.
Nothing in the public record remotely justifies either belief, so it is necessary to try to explain why Republicans have chosen to obsess over things that Obama has not done and to fixate on beliefs that he does not hold. Looking back, one consistent theme emerges: Republicans’ exaggerated fear of the decline in American power, and the insistence that Obama is actively facilitating American decline on account of his alleged hostility or indifference to American traditions and American preeminence in the world.
We see this fear in Mitt Romney’s hysterical rejection of the modest but important START arms control agreement with Russia, the competitive demagoguery of Republican leaders over the Park51 Islamic center in downtown New York, and in Newt Gingrich’s recent endorsement of Dinesh D’Souza’s preposterous claim in Forbes that Obama holds a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview. From this perspective, a reasonable, necessary arms control agreement represents capitulation to Russia, a harmless construction project in Manhattan is an assault on American civilization, and the only way to understand a conventional center-left Democratic President who is ideologically indistinguishable from many in his party is to link him to a foreign ideology allegedly held by a father he barely knew and the premises of which he obviously doesn’t accept.
This is the politics of illusion. Unfortunately, it has become the common currency for many of the Republican Party’s ostensibly reasonable and intelligent leaders.
Every party out of power tends towards exaggeration in describing the errors and flaws of the President in power, but rarely has the opposition party been as enthusiastic in its embrace of unfounded, nonsensical claims as GOP leaders have been with regard to claims about Obama. START does not limit U.S. missile defense, but Romney keeps insisting that it does. Even before the treaty signing, Republican critics were already making the baseless claim that Obama had abandoned missile defense and “sold out” European allies to Russia.
The unbuilt project once known as Cordoba House in Manhattan represented an attempt to foster ecumenical exchange, but according to Newt Gingrich it is a monument to Islamist victory and according to Romney it is a recruiting tool for jihadists. Unable to grasp why the President stepped in to counter the firestorm of misinformation that Gingrich and others had created, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza concluded that it must be because Obama shares his father’s mid-20th Century anti-colonialist hostility to Western power.
Incredibly, D’Souza wrote that “the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” This is probably the most direct accusation in a mainstream publication that the current President is deliberately subverting America’s position in the world for the sake of advancing a foreign ideology. Even more amazing, Gingrich has since praised D’Souza’s “profound insight.” D’Souza’s article represents the fullest expression of the two Republican myths about Obama, and it confirms the extent of Republicans’ intellectual bankruptcy and growing separation from reality.
The reality is that America’s power relative to other nations has been gradually ebbing since the end of WWII. Despite a brief period of effective unipolarity after 1989, an era whose end was hastened by the invasion of Iraq, the world has been moving toward a multipolar order for decades. Because of the overstretch of two long wars and fiscal constraints at home, the U.S. can no longer indulge in confrontational policies as easily as it once did, and Washington had to recognize some practical limits on its projection of power.
To some extent, Obama has recognized these limits and tried to repair frayed relationships with other states. Instead of seeing this as a product of structural, long-term changes in international politics and a result of the exhaustion brought on by the previous administration’s hubris and mistakes, however, many of Obama’s Republican critics have chosen to panic, to blame him for everything they see going wrong, and to assume that Obama’s decisions are driven by a fundamentally alien desire to damage the United States. If they cannot acknowledge that their own policies were seriously flawed, and if they cannot accept that American power will never be what it was for reasons that no President can control, these critics must resort to claiming that the real problem is that the President is an anti-Western subversive weakening us from within.
Republican leaders retreat into these illusions about Obama because they cannot cope with the reality of reduced American power – a reality that they themselves did much to create.
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