By Fred Kaplan
August 31, 2012
WASHINGTON — To watch Condoleezza Rice, the face of George W. Bush's foreign policy, stand before a convention of cheering Republicans and condemn Barack Obama for diminishing America's standing in the world — one can only gasp at the magnitude of chutzpah in one woman.
After describing a world of freedom fighters and tyrants Wednesday night, Bush's former secretary of state and national security adviser lamented, "Everyone asks, 'Where does America stand?' Indeed that is the question of the hour," she continued, for when "friends or foes alike don't know the answer to that question, unambiguously and clearly, the world is likely to be a more dangerous and chaotic place. … We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind."
The solution, she concluded, is to elect Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. "They know what to do," she said. "They know that our friends and allies must again be able to trust us."
First, it's not at all clear that they have the slightest idea what to do or even — judging from Romney's disastrously tin-eared trip to Europe this summer — how to think about what to do.
Second (this is the chutzpah part), Condi Rice — a top adviser in the most disastrous, reputation-crippling foreign-policy administration in decades — has no business lecturing anybody on this score.
Finally, Obama has done pretty well in foreign policy, and polls of actual foreigners — including allies — suggest that they think so too.
True, his foreign ratings — and America's — have slipped a bit since the halcyon days when he first took office, but for the most part they're still considerably higher than those of the Bush era.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of British citizens had a favorable view of the United States in 2008, the last year of Bush's presidency. Today the figure is 60 percent. In France, the figure rose from 42 percent to 69 percent; the Czech Republic, from 45 to 54 percent; Germany, from 31 to 52 percent; Japan, from 50 to 72 percent; Mexico, from 47 to 56 percent. Only in the Arab countries (Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan) has the rating declined (and do the Republicans really care much about that?).
Another Pew Poll, released just this week, about global attitudes toward President Obama as a leader makes Rice's concerns seem ridiculous. As summarized by CNN, 87 percent of the Germans, 86 percent of the French, 80 percent of the British and 74 percent of the Japanese have confidence in Obama — in each case, more confidence than they have in their own leaders. More striking still, 92 percent of the French, 89 percent of the Germans, 73 percent of the British and 66 percent of the Japanese want Obama re-elected.
What does Condi Rice know about Obama's reputation in the world that the citizens of the world don't?
Earlier Wednesday evening, Sen. John McCain, Obama's GOP opponent in the 2008 election, voiced the same concerns more grumpily. (Rice, it must be said, was eloquent, if a bit nervous at the start, and did not descend to the crowd's rabidity; her most passionate plea, in fact, was for better schooling of K-12 youth.)
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 Moammar Gadhafi's armed thugs and militias, Obama — in tandem with NATO — assisted the rebels more indirectly. He then mounted direct airstrikes against Gadhafi'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 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."
Fred Kaplan is Slate.com's "War Stories" columnist, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of the forthcoming book "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."
I thought this piece made some really good points. Please discuss!
[Edited to tweak spacing. Because I'm THAT anal. True fax.]