Former U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice packed a punch in her 15 minutes in the spotlight. At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the veteran national security advisor and academic urged her party and the country not to shrink back from global leadership. And, while her presentation touched on domestic issues like education, Rice’s speech was one of the few this week to focus on foreign affairs. Like the Romney campaign, the convention has been light on international themes.
Rice’s speech revisited familiar internationalist and neo-conservative themes: the U.S. must maintain its preeminent global position; America should spread liberal democracy and free markets abroad; a strong military is essential to U.S. leadership in world affairs; the United States is an exceptional country; and so forth. Though she never mentioned Ron Paul by name, Rice was clearly speaking to the leader of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party and his enthusiastic followers. There was no indication that Condi Rice has shifted in her fundamentally realist worldview.
It was the silences of the speech – what was missing – that stuck out the most. In a brief timeline sketch of the last decade, the former George W. Bush confidant jumped from the September 11, 2001 attacks to the global financial crisis that reached a crescendo in 2008. There was no mention of Afghanistan or Iraq in this narrative. It was as if the Iraq war (2003-2011) had never happened, or as if the Afghanistan war were a footnote in U.S. foreign affairs. Rice did mention Iraq in passing, but only in reference to the Arab Spring. (The Democrats will have their silences next week, and I’ll reflect on those silences, too.)
Beyond the Condi Rice convention speech, it is remarkable how little attention Afghanistan has garnered in this U.S. presidential campaign. So often, Americans of various stations ask the question, “What are we doing in Afghanistan?” To a great extent, the Obama administration – and particularly the president himself – has mostly ignored this question from the American people. Rather than compose a coherent case for state building abroad, American politicians are informally agreeing to downplay this broader foreign policy issue. This strategy is probably smart electoral politics, but it does little to enhance our civic engagement with a tough global question.
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