McCain slammed Obama for not coming to the rescue of persecuted citizens in Syria and Iran, presumably with armed force. “In other times, when other courageous people fought for their freedom against sworn enemies of the United States,” he claimed, “American presidents—both Republicans and Democrats—have acted to help them prevail.”
Tell that to the Hungarians of 1956, the Czechs of ‘68, the Poles and Balts after World War II, the Chinese in Tiananmen Square … the list could go on.
More to the point, though, what is it that McCain wants Obama to do? When the Iranian rebels emerged during the Bush era, Condi Rice publicly announced a $75 million program to help their cause. The Iranian regime took the move as an excuse to arrest even modest reformers in their midst under charges of espionage.
McCain and Rice badgered Obama for “leading from behind,” a phrase attributed to an anonymous White House aide in a New Yorker article. But again, what would they prefer him to do? Invade Iran (a country three times the size of Iraq)? Bomb Syria?
Republicans tend not to bring up Libya. While McCain and others complained at the time that Obama wasn’t moving quickly or forcefully enough to help the rebels stave off Muammar Qaddafi’s armed thugs and militias, Obama—in tandem with NATO—assisted the rebels more indirectly. He then mounted direct air strikes against Qaddafi’s troops when meaningful targets presented themselves, all the while staying in the background rhetorically: a policy that Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican president from the days when the GOP stood for something else) described as “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” As a result, the rebels won, and countries like France and Italy—which have a more direct interest in Libya’s future—are paying the development bills. (If Obama had done what McCain wanted him to do, we would have been stuck with the bills, and the Libyan revolution would have appeared to many parties in the world as less legitimate, a contrivance of “American imperialism.”)
The facts of the matter are these. Obama’s foreign policy, while hardly perfect, has been quite successful. Uncommon for a first-term president, he hasn’t caused any outright catastrophes. He ended the Iraq war (a subject that neither Rice, who helped start it, nor McCain, who avidly promoted it, mentioned Wednesday night). He approved his generals’ plan for escalating the war in Afghanistan, but when it didn’t work, he backed off instead of plunging deeper into the big muddy. And—something the Republicans wish everyone would forget—he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden (a decision more fraught with risk than his critics acknowledge) and decimated al-Qaida.
For the first time in a half-century, the Democrats have a stronger image on national security than the Republicans do.
That explains what’s going on here. If elections were decided on issues, the Republicans would stay away from foreign policy this year. Even drifting into that realm risks reminding voters of Obama’s clear advantage. But some political strategist must have reasoned that they can’t just let the issue go, especially since foreign policy is the one area where presidents have a lot of power to do things by themselves. If the Republicans in 2004 could turn a war hero like John Kerry into a coward, and a reserve pilot who never saw battle like George W. Bush into a war hero, maybe they think they can turn the president who terminated the world’s most-wanted terrorist into a rudderless wimp.
Whoever booked McCain and Rice on the same night of the Republican National Convention must have thought, “It’s worth a shot.”