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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.

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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.

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