GOP debates open a window on America's global role

Wednesday's debate between Republican presidential candidates revealed big differences on US military intervention abroad. Yet history shows a candidate's words may not predict his actions as president.

The GOP presidential candidates began a fall series of debates Sept. 7 by revealing one big difference between them: Some decried any US military intervention abroad; others want it narrowly limited by specific national interests; and at least one candidate warned against such “isolationist” views, reminding fellow Republicans that Ronald Reagan was committed “to America being a force for good.”

This noticeable split over foreign policy represents the America of today. Its citizens are worn out over two wars and worn down by economic doldrums. Yet according to a 2010 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, more than 8 out of 10 Americans think it’s either “very desirable” or “somewhat desirable” for the United States to “exert strong leadership in world affairs.”

Ever since the end of the cold war, Americans have elected presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama) who promised to focus on nation-building at home but then drove the US into various conflicts (Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). The contradiction between a candidate’s words and a president’s actions hints at historic tensions in defining America’s identity and its role in the world – whether as liberator, savior, or in some eyes, imperialist bully.

Once again, during this campaign for the 2012 elections, defining that global role is up for grabs. And this debate within the GOP comes at an interesting time: the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the start of a make-or-break attempt by Congress to make big cuts in the federal budget – especially defense.

Too bad, then, that only a couple minutes were dedicated to this important topic during Wednesday’s debate. The leading GOP contender, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, warned against “military adventurism,” but had a difficult time defining when the US should intervene. Jon Huntsman Jr., the only candidate with foreign experience as President Obama’s ambassador to China, wants the US not to attempt nation-building in Afghanistan and, like many of the candidates, was against the NATO action in Libya.

Yet almost all of the GOP candidates have risen up in protest when Mr. Obama suggests America is not an exceptional nation, with special responsibilities in the world.

These contradictions are reflected in a June poll by The Hill publication: 45 percent of Republicans said the US is safer because of American intervention in Afghanistan, while 28 percent said it has had no impact. (The rest said the US is less safe or they weren’t sure.)

Obama’s shift toward more intervention likely began after he misjudged the Iranian uprising of 2009. While many protesters were being killed in Tehran, he still held out a hand for negotiations with Iranian rulers. By the end of that year, he began to praise past American efforts to bring democracy to places like Bosnia. And he boosted troop levels in Afghanistan to create a stable government by 2014.

Obama’s ambivalence on the US role can be seen in his halting actions toward the Arab Spring. Even in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, he said: “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest.”

Still, his official policy is that America’s “influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home.” In recent weeks, he even sought up to $800 billion in cuts from the security agencies.

Ever since America’s early days when it was founded on principles of liberty and democracy, the country has wavered between the realism of limited means to change the world and the idealism of bringing peace and freedom to foreign lands.

Defining the “self-interest” abroad for America is now part of almost every presidential contest. Let’s hope the coming GOP candidate debates can focus more on this critical question.

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