On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie told the Republican National Convention, “Real leaders don’t follow polls. Real leaders change polls.” On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a valiant effort to do just that, by laying out the cases for military interventions in Iran and Syria while slamming the President for his Afghanistan withdrawal plans.
A July poll showed that 60 percent of Americans (and slim majority of Republicans) believe the United States should not be involved in Afghanistan right now. A March Washington Post/ABC News Poll showed that 63 percent of Americans (and a majority of Republicans) believed that we should wait to see if sanctions work in Iran, and people of all political stripes supported sanctions and direct diplomatic talks with Iran over bombing their nuclear sites. In an August CNN poll, despite the preponderance of concern for the situation in Syria, a slim majority of Americans still opposed air strikes and 64 percent opposed ground troops.
Rice, in particular, said the United States had an obligation to respond:
Yet, the promise of the Arab Spring is engulfed in uncertainty; internal strife and hostile neighbors are challenging the fragile democracy in Iraq; dictators in Iran and Syria butcher their own people and threaten the security of the region; China and Russia prevent a response; and all wonder, “Where does America stand?”
Indeed that is the question of the moment — “Where does America stand?” When our friends and our foes, alike, do not know the answer to that question — clearly and unambiguously — the world is a chaotic and dangerous place. The U.S. has since the end of World War II had an answer — we stand for free peoples and free markets, we are willing to support and defend them — we will sustain a balance of power that favors freedom.
“My fellow Americans,” she added later, “we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead — and one cannot lead from behind.” Americans, however, seem to generally disagree.
A CNN poll in May and a Pew one in March asked respondents “Do you think the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups, or doesn’t the United States have this responsibility?” Fully 61 percent and 64 percent, respectively, said no.
The reaction in the Tampa Bay Times Forum last night was indicative of the war-weariness that even Rice herself acknowledged from the podium: the attendees sat in relative silence throughout Rice’s call to military action except when asked to acknowledge the sacrifice of the troops and in response to the zinger both McCain and Rice both aimed at Obama — that America cannot “lead from behind.”
McCain’s calls to action was even more specific than Rice’s more oblique efforts to encourage support for potential wars in Iran and Syria and the continuation of the almost-11-year war in Afghanistan.
“By committing to withdraw from Afghanistan before peace can be achieved and sustained, the president has discouraged our friends and emboldened our enemies,” McCain told the crowd. Romney said last year he disagreed with the troop withdrawal schedule, but General John Allen, who heads the American force in Afghanistan, said in committee hearing earlier this year that he was committed to the 2014 withdrawal schedule but did not recommend further withdrawals until later in 2012 — which is the President’s reported current timeline to withdraw another 10,000 troops. Allen’s second-in-command, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told NPR in May that he would prefer to push any further withdrawals off until 2013, and it appears that McCain’s statements referenced Scaparrotti’s desires, as well as speeches made this month by Lt. Gen. Dan Allyn, who used to command troops in the east of Afghanistan, and retired Gen. John Keane, the reported architect of the Iraq surge.
McCain also explained what he perceives as the President’s failure to commit to military action against Iran.
When Iranians rose up by the millions against their oppressive rulers, when they beseeched our president, chanting in English, ‘Are you with us, or are you with them?’, when the entire world watched as a brave young woman named Neda was shot and bled to death in a street in Tehran.
The president missed a historic opportunity to throw America’s full moral support behind an Iranian revolution that shared one of our highest interests: ridding Iran of a brutal dictatorship that terrorizes the Middle East and threatens the world.
Neda is Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot watching a protest on June 20, 2009. While Obama did respond to her death at the time, critics have long charged that, despite the lack of official diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran and the regime’s tendency to use any American support for a person or cause to discredit said person or cause, Obama should have done more in his capacity as president to support the Green Revolution there. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service’s June report notes that the Administration made efforts to improve relationship prior to the crack-down in service of its desire to end Iran’s nuclear program, but resumed pressure from sanctions in 2010 after Agha-Soltan’s death and Iran’s failure to comply with a nuclear deadline in 2009. Obama openly put military solutions in Iran “on the table” in an interview in March 2012. Furthermore, the report notes that Iranian experts agree that having American fingerprints on any Iranian opposition movement “would make the aid recipients less attractive to most Iranians,” and Iranian expert Hooman Majd wrote in Foreign Policy in 2010 that, “Coming out squarely on the side of the opposition in Iran is likely to undermine its credibility, and perhaps even lend credence to the government’s assertion that the movement is a foreign-inspired plot that will rob Iran of its independence.”
Finally, McCain slammed the Administration’s response to the civil war in Syria, stating that our lack of military engagement “to help [dissidents]” is prevail” is “not being true to our values.” Meanwhile, Obama threatened military action against the Syrian regime on August 20 if the regime used chemical weapons against its people, and has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign for almost a year. In April, however, Obama said in response to critiques of his lack of action in Syria that he condemns the violence against civilians but, “That does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world. We cannot and should not.”
McCain and Rice apparently feel differently — but it’s clear from polls and the crowd reactions that, after almost 11 years of war, even many Republicans do not.