TAMPA, Fla. — Republicans delivered a scathing indictment of President Barack Obama’s national security policy, although the Democrat’s aggressive approach has often been compared to that of his GOP predecessor, George W. Bush.
Defense and foreign policy, largely footnotes during the first two days of the Republican convention, were at the core of speeches by Sen. John McCain, Obama’s presidential rival in 2008, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state. Neither uttered Obama’s name Wednesday night in their prime-time remarks, but the target of their criticism was clear.
“For four years, we’ve drifted away from our proudest traditions of global leadership,” McCain said. “We’ve let the challenges we face, both at home and abroad, become harder to solve.”
He faulted Obama for projected cuts to defense spending, a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan and an unwillingness to use more U.S. military force to stop the months of bloodshed in Syria. McCain drew the loudest applause when he criticized the government over suspected national security leaks.
Rice acknowledged the nation’s weariness from the two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Bush started but said: “If we are not inspired to lead again, one of two things will happen: No one will lead and that will foster chaos, or others who do not share our values will fill the vacuum. ... We do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead — and one cannot lead from behind.”
Republicans have seized on the words “leading from behind,” which an unnamed Obama adviser used in a New Yorker article, even though the idea is to empower others while avoiding the perception of unilateral U.S. action.
Rice recalled standing at her desk the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and learning of the terrorist attacks. She made no mention of Osama bin Laden and Obama’s order as commander in chief for the Navy SEAL operation that killed the terrorist leader.
“Our friends and allies must be able to trust us,” she said. “From Israel to Poland to the Philippines to Colombia and across the world — they must know that we are reliable and consistent and determined. ... Our military capability and technological advantage will be safe in Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s hands.”
National security has barely warranted a mention at the convention as jobs and the economy remain the dominant issues for the electorate. The short shrift also reflects a political reality of the past four years — Republicans have made little headway in challenging Obama’s aggressive security policies.
Obama has waged a secret campaign against al-Qaida in two countries — one on the Arab Peninsula, the other on Africa’s east coast. Navy SEALs took out bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 and armed drones have pursued al-Qaida terrorists within the country, degrading the group.
The U.S. military and allied forces aided rebels who overthrew Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi last year. Prodded by Congress, Obama has imposed tough sanctions on Iran amid recent hints of a cyberwar against Tehran. The president has ended the war in Iraq and taken steps to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting.
In opinion polls, Obama gets high marks for his handling of foreign policy and edges out Romney on the issue. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month of registered voters found 54 percent approval for the president’s work while 40 percent disapproved.
Romney insisted Wednesday that Obama has been less than forceful.
“For the past four years, President Obama has allowed our leadership to diminish,” the Republican presidential candidate told the American Legion in a speech in Indianapolis. “In dealings with other nations, he has given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved and apology where it is not due.”
Rice was pressed repeatedly during an interview on “CBS This Morning” to provide specific examples of where Obama has failed on foreign policy. She declined to offer any examples.
“It’s a question about what a President Romney would do,” she said. “There is no doubt that the United States’ voice has been muted. When the United States’ voice is muted, the world is a more dangerous place.”
A group of Democrats countering the Republican line argued that the ticket of Romney and Paul Ryan is the least experienced on national security of any Republican presidential duo in decades.
National security “is a strength of President Obama’s,” said former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who cited the “litany of achievements and accomplishments of the Obama administration,” including the killing of bin Laden, the fall of Gadhafi and aid to Israel for the “Iron Dome” system to intercept shorter-range rockets that might be launched by Palestinian and Hezbollah militants.
“No wonder Republicans don’t want to talk about national security when the president has a spotless record,” Roemer said.
Republicans are convinced, however, that they can make political inroads with cuts in military spending even though they voted for the reductions last summer.
“The Obama administration is set to cut defense spending by nearly a trillion dollars. My administration will not,” said Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.
In fact, some $500 billion in cuts are over 10 years and were part of the deficit-cutting plan that Obama and congressional Republicans backed in August 2011. Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and McCain voted for the reductions.
If Congress fails to agree on another plan to slash the deficit, an additional $500 billion in cuts would kick in during January 2013.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that he’d “like to see the governor beat up on the president” over the looming cuts.