The Republican National Convention took an uncharacteristic turn toward foreign policy on Wednesday night, as two prominent speakers lashed out at President Barack Obama's leadership in world affairs.
"Unfortunately, for four years, we've drifted away from our proudest traditions of global leadership, traditions that are truly bipartisan," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his address early in the night. "We've let the challenges we face, both at home and abroad, become harder to solve. We can't afford to stay on that course any longer."
Condoleezza Rice, the one-time secretary of state under George W. Bush who has emerged as a top Mitt Romney supporter on foreign affairs matters, later echoed this sentiment, adding that the United States has fallen from its leadership role in the world.
"That is the question of the moment: Where does America stand?" Rice said, in a speech that never mentioned Obama by name or specifically criticized his policies. "When friends and foes alike don't know the answer to that question -- clearly and unambiguously -- the world is likely to be a chaotic and dangerous place."
Rice oversaw U.S. foreign policy during a time when many citizens have come to feel the United States overextended itself abroad, entering into two wars that continued well into the Obama administration (and one, Afghanistan, that continues to this day).
Perhaps in a nod to that legacy, Rice acknowledged that "there is a weariness -- I know that it feels as if we have carried these burdens long enough." But, she continued, "One of two things will happen if we don't lead: No one will lead and there will be chaos, or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values. My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice: We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind."
Earlier in the day, Rice had offered some specific criticisms of Obama's handling of the uprising in Syria, accusing the president of waffling and "muting" America's voice.
Speaking to the Tampa crowd, McCain seconded that complaint, arguing that Obama had abandoned "the lonely voices of dissent in Syria and Iran and elsewhere, who feel forgotten in their darkness, and sadly for us as well, our president is not being true to our values."
He also criticized Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plan, calling it too quick and saying that it "has discouraged our friends and emboldened our enemies."
So far, Romney has not embraced many of these criticisms, opting to limit his censure of Obama's handling of the Syrian crisis to generalizations and earlier stating that he supported Obama's timetable for leaving Afghanistan.
In fact, many observers, including McCain back in 2008, have noted that Romney's foreign policy inclinations seem generally to be more moderate -- that is, closer to Obama's -- than the mainstream of his party.
But the Romney campaign has clearly seen a vulnerability to exploit in arguing that Obama has not been a strong world leader, and the notion of American exceptionalism has been a recurring theme. It's an idea that evokes not just America's role in international affairs, but a time when America's economy was the envy of the world and Ronald Reagan's vision of the nation as a "shining city on the hill."
"I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country," Romney said, when he delivered a foreign policy address in July. "I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history, our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair."
In his keynote address on Tuesday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly referred to a "second American century" under Romney.
Still, the move to directly criticize the president's foreign policy, forecast Wednesday morning in the Wall Street Journal, is a bit of a surprise from a campaign that has largely focused on the nation's troubled economy.
Foreign policy is generally considered to be a strong suit for Obama, particularly after he oversaw the conclusion of American fighting in Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Where he has touched on foreign policy criticism, Romney has so far tended to stick to side issues, particularly leaks of classified information, which Romney's campaign has called a threat to national security.
Romney has also repeatedly accused Obama of distancing the U.S. from Israel. McCain's speech on Wednesday was followed by a video montage of quotes from Romney about the bond between the two nations.
This post has been updated to more exactly reflect statements made by Rice in her speech.