Opinion

Why Marco Rubio's tough guy act is actually a display of cringing cowardice

Real courage would restrain us from freaking out at the slightest threat

Marco Rubio is laying out his foreign policy platform for 2016, and the take-home message is this: PANIC!!!

Elsewhere, Rubio is laying claim to the usual panoply of hyper-masculine tough guy imagery: flags, bald eagles, and banners proclaiming "American Strength."

What he means by strength can be seen in a speech he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations, blaming everything bad that has happened overseas in the past six years on President Obama's insufficiently aggressive stance towards Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba. It would appear that chest-thumping belligerence is how safety is to be obtained.

Let's call this what it is: cowardice. Whatever happened to political courage?

I'm speaking of real political courage, not the kind that neoconservatives equate with moar war. The politics of courage, as it is practiced by the Republican Party, is heavily gendered and homophobic — as can be seen in the slurs (e.g., "sissy") used against those less militarily inclined. Attacking political enemies for lacking "manly" courage is a political commonplace going back hundreds of years.

Sexism, of course, has been a bipartisan affair, but these days Rubio's party is undoubtedly the worse offender. Since the end of World War II, attacking liberals for their weak, effeminate unwillingness to make the "tough decisions" to kill or imprison lots of people has been a staple of conservative rhetoric. This has been buttressed more recently by Democrats' association with feminism and gay rights, their corresponding greater number of female candidates, and the opening of a gender gap between the parties.

Such attacks rely on sexist tropes about women (or LGBT people) being incapable of hard, logical analysis due to excessive emotion or softness. Needless to say, those are totally illegitimate grounds for criticism. To the contrary, there is nothing strong, tough, or courageous about constant demands for more use of violence, or executing innocent people, or invading random countries for no reason.

However, if one can clear away the various prejudiced dross, there is a political case to be made for courage. I reject the idea that one can quickly and easily obtain more security by sacrificing liberty — and I also believe that not flying into a hysterical frenzy every time something terrible happens takes real courage.

After 9/11, that kind of courage was notably absent from American political leadership. Instead, there was a grasping panic; impossible, childish demands for physical security (the "one percent doctrine"); and a blind, psychotic thirst for vengeance. The most convenient victim turned out to be Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. That war of aggression did nothing for American security — indeed, it gravely harmed it. And like any act of bullying, it was fundamentally an act of cowardice.

Sometimes courage requires standing up to physical danger, like not losing one's wits when under fire. It can also be strength in the face of pain and grief. A sensible reaction to terrorist attacks would involve both: a realization that total security is an impossible goal, and that senselessly lashing out at random targets will not heal the damage done by the attackers.

Unfortunately for something like half a million Iraqis, President Bush was a knock-kneed coward. It's too bad that Rubio mistakes his foreign policy for courage.

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