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Nikki Haley gets 'blame America first' attack backwards

Nikki Haley echoed Jeane Kirkpatrick's "blame America first" rhetoric 36 years later, but she doesn't understand the phrase nearly as well as she should.
Image: Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.John Lamparski / Getty Images file

Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, began her Republican National Convention remarks with a story about one of her predecessors from a generation earlier.

"She called for the re-election of the Republican president she served. And she called out his Democratic opponent, a former vice president from a failed administration. That ambassador said, and I quote, 'Democrats always blame America first.' The year was 1984. The president was Ronald Reagan. And Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's words are just as true today. Joe Biden and the Democrats are still blaming America first. Donald Trump has always put America first."

I've read Kirkpatrick's speech several times over the years, and it's memorable in part because she repeated her catchphrase five times: "They always blame America first." Referring specifically to Democrats and the left, the ambassador went on to condemn the "blame-America-first crowd."

The point at the time was that the Reagan administration wanted voters to believe that Republicans saw the United States as a force for good in the world, while Democrats, by Kirkpatrick's estimation, saw U.S. foreign policy doing more harm than good.

According to the pitch, Reagan would celebrate the United States' role as a global leader, even if his detractors preferred to see us cede our leadership role.

With this history in mind, Nikki Haley may not appreciate the degree to which she got this backwards -- because her former boss is the one with a blame-America-first impulse.

As regular readers know, two weeks after taking office, Trump sat down for an interview in which he was reminded that Russian President Vladimir Putin is "a killer." Trump replied, "There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country's so innocent?"

As we discussed at the time, Americans generally aren't accustomed to hearing their president be quite this critical of the United States -- out loud and in public. What's more, the idea that the U.S. chief executive sees a moral equivalence between us and an autocratic thug came as a reminder that Trump doesn't always hold his country in the highest regard.

Indeed, he hasn't exactly been subtle on this point. In December 2015, then-candidate Trump was asked about Putin's habit of invading countries and killing critics. "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader," Trump replied, "unlike what we have in this country." Reminded that Putin has been accused of ordering the murder of critics and journalists, Trump added, "Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also."

In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times, the Republican went on to argue that the United States lacks the moral authority to lead, because we're just not a good enough country to command respect abroad. "When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don't think we're a very good messenger," he said.

There's never been a president, from either party, who's been so cavalier about America lacking in credibility. Sentiments such as "When the world looks at how bad the United States is..." are usually heard from America's opponents, not America's president. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg noted during the 2016 campaign that Barack Obama "has never spoken as negatively about America as Donald Trump has."

This is also the president who explicitly rejected the idea of "America exceptionalism," questioning aloud whether the United States really is "more outstanding" than other nations. (This week, his campaign team pushed in the opposite direction for reasons unknown.)

Two years ago, when Trump went to Helsinki and sided with Vladimir Putin over his own administration's intelligence officials, the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty wrote a column labeling the Republican the "'blame America first' president."

Tumulty added at the time, "President Trump has turned the Republican Party into what Jeane J. Kirkpatrick once contemptuously branded the Democrats: 'the blame America first crowd.'"

To be sure, Trump is entitled to believe that the United States is not a force for good in the world. If he wants to argue that his own country isn't "innocent," good, or credible, the president is free to make that case as best he can.

But at his nominating convention, there's just no reason for Nikki Haley to turn reality on its head and pretend that Trump celebrates a vision he's explicitly rejected.