Two leading lights of the Republican national-security establishment called on Wednesday night for a muscular brand of American global leadership that frightens foes and comforts friends. But how well does that more assertive brand of leadership sell with a war-weary American public? And how does it square with a nominee who has pledged to cut taxes across the board, reduce a ballooning debt, and shrink the size of government?
Sen. John McCain of Arizona argued that President Obama is ushering America into decline and that he has proven more eager to engage with enemies than deepen ties with friends. That has left nervous allies questioning U.S. resolve—whether it’s preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, shielding Eastern Europe from an authoritarian Russia, supporting Asian allies in their disputes with assertive China, or blocking the reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. “People tell me they still have faith in America,” McCain said in his address to the Republican National Convention. “What they want to know is whether we still have faith in ourselves.”
Mitt Romney, McCain argued, would reverse “crippling” cuts to the defense budget and increase the size of naval forces responsible for patrolling Asia. McCain also believes that Romney should be prepared to keep troops in Afghanistan until the mission there is accomplished, use force if necessary to deny Iran the bomb, and intercede on behalf of Syrian rebels.
Condoleezza Rice, for her part, argued that the international system endured three great shocks in the past decade from which it has yet to recover, each demanding better American leadership. First, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks proved that the greatest security threat can come from failed states and showed us the need for constant vigilance. Second, the global financial crisis made us rethink what constitutes economic security. And third, the Arab Spring revolutions, which Rice called perhaps the most dramatic, laid bare the argument that authoritarianism can be stable.
Those shocks have been destabilizing, she believes, because of an absence of American leadership. When the United States defers to international organizations before acting, Rice said, friends are not certain that they can count on us, and foes don’t fear or respect us. Romney, she said, “will provide the answer to the question, ‘Where does America stand?’ ”
Still, the messengers may also have reminded people about how muscular leadership contributed to the country’s diminished circumstances. Rice was national security adviser when George W. Bush made the hugely expensive (and eventually unpopular) decision to invade Iraq. And McCain, a champion of the neoconservatives who dominated in the first Bush term, supported “surges” in both Iraq and Afghanistan and military intervention in Libya and Syria.
With Syria in flames and another potential conflict brewing with Iran, it’s unclear whether the McCain-Rice brand of domineering leadership still sells with a war-weary and economically strapped American public. Romney has largely adopted their vision as part of an effort to claim Ronald Reagan’s mantle of “peace through strength,” but he has so far declined to specify how his administration would reconcile the requisite increases in defense spending with promises to cut taxes and reduce the debt. Even “the Gipper” himself was unable to pull off that trifecta.
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