It has become the unofficial catchphrase of the Republicans' foreign policy critique of President Barack Obama: "American Exceptionalism." To the Republican nominees, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, it represents everything wrong with Obama's approach to international affairs -- he doesn't care for it, and they would finally restore it.
On Thursday night, in a speech that was widely perceived as an open audition for the job of secretary of state in a second Obama term, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) delivered the Democrats' official response: the Republicans have got it backwards.
"Our opponents like to talk about 'American Exceptionalism,' but all they do is talk," said Kerry, in the Democratic National Convention's featured address on foreign policy. "The only thing exceptional about today's Republicans is that -- almost without exception -- they oppose everything that has made America exceptional in the first place."
Drawing a parallel with the economic crises that Obama inherited when he came into office, Kerry argued that Obama also inherited a spate of foreign policy struggles, which were the inevitable consequence of eight years of Republican "exceptionalism."
"Just measure the disarray and disaster he inherited," Kerry said early in his speech. "A war of choice in Iraq had become a war without end, and a war of necessity in Afghanistan had become a war of neglect. Our alliances were shredded. Our moral authority was in tatters. America was isolated in the world."
Faced with these challenges, Kerry argued, it took Obama's distinctive approach to the world -- a more collective and deliberate style that came to be known, derisively to some, as "leading from behind" -- to restore true exceptionalism, and "make America lead like America again."
It was a strongly delivered and occasionally quippy speech, and Kerry devoted about as much time in it building up Obama's foreign policy credits as he did tearing down Romney's.
Describing Romney as "someone who just hasn't learned the lessons of the last decade," Kerry said that the Republican nominees were "the most inexperienced foreign policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades."
"Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska," Kerry said in one of several colorful punchlines. "Mitt Romney talks like he's only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV."
In characterizing Romney as a wishy-washy figure on foreign policy -- "extreme and expedient," he called him at one point -- Kerry sought to portray the Republican nominee as a repeat of all the worst qualities of former President George W. Bush, as perceived by Democrats: simultaneously too ambitious and casually blundering.
"We've all learned Mitt Romney doesn't know much about foreign policy," Kerry said. "But he has all these 'neocon advisors' who know all the wrong things about foreign policy."
He later added, in a reference to Romney's gaffe-filled foreign policy tour this past July, "It wasn't a goodwill mission -- it was a blooper reel."
Not surprisingly, it didn't take Kerry long to turn his speech toward the main foreign policy bullet point of Obama's reelection campaign: the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
"After more than ten years without justice for thousands of Americans murdered on 9/11, after Mitt Romney said it would be 'naïve' to go into Pakistan to pursue the terrorists, it took President Obama, against the advice of many, to give that order and finally rid this earth of Osama bin Laden," Kerry said. "Ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago."
Anticipating a night of foreign policy critique, the Romney campaign on Thursday afternoon circulated a memo outlining ten "failures" of Obama's foreign policy, including charges that he had "failed to slow the progress of Iran's" nuclear program and "damaged the cherished relationship between the United States and Israel."
The campaign also said that Obama had made "numerous unwise and seemingly politically motivated decisions" in his plan to drawdown the war in Afghanistan.
"President Obama's failure on the economy has been so severe that it has overshadowed his manifold failures on foreign policy and national security," said the memo, authored by Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign's policy director. "An inventory of his record shows that by nearly all measures, President Obama has diminished American influence abroad and compromised our interests and values."
Kerry sought to tackle some of these complaints, and in an extended section on Afghanistan, he commended Obama for keeping his promise "to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly." But, perhaps predictably, he opted to focus most of his remarks on Romney's lack of a strong message on the war.
"It isn't fair to say Mitt Romney doesn't have a position on Afghanistan," Kerry said. "He has every position."
He also took Romney to task for failing to mention Afghanistan -- or any other war -- during his Republican National Convention speech last week. "No nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of a war to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech," Kerry said. "Mitt Romney was talking about America. They are on the front lines every day defending America, and they deserve our thanks."
One region that got short shrift in Kerry's speech was Syria, where a prolonged revolutionary crisis has largely stymied the Obama administration, and has opened up Obama to criticism from the Republicans that he has not done enough to assist the uprising.
Kerry himself has a particularly uncomfortable history as a longtime booster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the role Kerry once believed Assad could play in keeping peace the Middle East.
Kerry has since said that he never saw Assad as a true "domestic reformer," but -- ever the pragmatist -- nevertheless defends his efforts to reach out and engage with the embattled Syrian leader at a time when it seemed possible.
"This was an external opportunity," Kerry told The New York Times' James Traub last year, speaking of the role that he once thought Assad might be compelled to play in the region. "Countries and people and leaders of countries act out of self-interest. ... Foreign policy is the art of finding those interests and seeing what serves your nation, and trying to marry them."
Jodi Smith, Kerry's Senate spokesman, told HuffPost in a statement that Kerry "doesn't regret testing Syria's intentions, but regrets that Assad squandered the opportunity. Senator Kerry has condemned the regime, urged Assad's departure, and pressed for a managed transition that would respect the aspirations of the Syrian people and help end the bloodshed."
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