The Post reports: “The United States has concluded that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces, and President Obama has authorized direct U.S. military support to the rebels, the White House said Thursday.” A spokesman for the speaker of the House reacted via e-mail: “It is long past time to bring the Assad regime’s bloodshed in Syria to an end. As President Obama examines his options, it is our hope he will properly consult with Congress before taking any action.”
The two-year delay in offering assistance to the rebels was unconscionable. If we can figure out the recipients and the correct weapons to deliver now, why could we not have done this six months or a year or 18 months ago? Not until about 100,000 dead souls, the use of chemical weapons (about which we pleaded uncertainty for weeks even after the United Nations, Israel, France and Britain had confirmed its use), a flood of refugees threatening to destabilize neighboring countries and the intervention of Russia, Hezbollah and Iran on President Bashar al-Assad’s side could Obama bring himself to act.
What explains such timidity? It is no doubt confounding to our allies and to oppressed people and heartening to our foes. “Smart diplomacy” is anticipating events, acting with alacrity and recognizing both threats and opportunities. If it is a matter of poor and inept advisers, then Obama is delinquent in not upgrading his staff. If it is a matter of putting politics above national security (e.g. refusing to act during the 2012 campaign), then it is shameful. If it is, despite five years of experience, a fundamental misunderstanding as to the role of diplomacy and the abilities of multi-lateral bodies, then it is self-delusion on Obama’s part.
But this is a pointed lesson for those who want to do nothing in the face of genocide and Iranian aggression: If you don’t act decisively early on, your options become more limited, the cost (in lives and material) becomes steeper and the chances of defeat go up. It would be useful if the isolationists understood that their demands for inactivity do not prevent action, but rather reduce our effectiveness when events compel us to act.
It is noteworthy that anti-isolationists are starting to push back. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference and former Arizona Republican senator Jon Kyl at the Capitol Hill club this week suggested that they’re ready to engage the far left and isolationist right to make the case for a robust American presence in the world.
Although Rubio conceded that Americans should not engage in every conflict, he posed an entirely different question: If the United States did not lead the world — then who would? “There is nothing to replace us,” he said. “I promise you it’s not the United Nations. I promise you it’s not China. I promise you it’s not the European Union.”
Meanwhile Kyl made a sound observation regarding internationalists:
We’re all caught in our past careers, a lot of us with the background of the Cold War,” said Kyl. “A lot of us remember fondly Ronald Reagan and peace through strength—all the things that convinced us that we had to have a presence in the world to protect our interests. But those arguments aren’t winning the day now. . . If we don’t find the way to convince and persuade the opinion leaders of today that this is the right course of action, we may find the price that we pay for that inability will be very great indeed.”
Part of that, I would suggest, is in moving to younger, more appealing voices (like Rubio), and part is in explaining why it is in America’s interest to act internationally. I would also suggest that more emphasis has to be made on the array of soft power options and to make clear that “boots on the ground” is in many cases not at issue.
It also requires sound-thinking Democrats and Republicans to push back on the nonsense, paranoia and downright fabrications emanating from some quarters. John Yoo argues:
I would suggest that [Sen. Rand] Paul and extreme libertarians like him actually have no coherent foreign policy. They simply have a desire to withdraw to the homeland. But that is an instinct, not a theory or strategy. It has no evaluation of different foreign policy goals or matching of means and ends. In a world where other nations and even terrorist groups can easily project power across the oceans — and where one third of our economy depends on international trade — Paul’s foreign policy cannot work.
Syria is an object lesson in why delay and avoidance in foreign affairs are unworkable and dangerous. Likewise, the National Security Agency programs offer another opportunity to rebut the know-nothingness of some who concoct conspiracies and poorly grasp the Constitution. (I heartily agree with my colleague Michael Gerson who writes, “Some libertarians and populist conservatives are not merely attacking Obama; they are slandering U.S. intelligence services. There is no evidence, or even a serious allegation, that the NSA has made political use of data it has gathered. . . .The NSA, with the permission of a court and under the supervision of Congress, built a searchable digital database. Listening in on phone calls still requires a warrant, based on probable cause.”)
Those who fancy themselves as the most devoted constitutionalists among us need to be called out when they bluster and misread the Constitution, as American Enterprise Institute scholar Gary Schmitt did recently. (“Sen. Paul needs to bone up on his constitutional precedents and history. There’s nothing in Supreme Court decisions or previous Republican or Democratic positions that suggest getting this kind of data violates the Fourth Amendment.”)
I am heartened that opponents of U.S. retrenchment are speaking out and denouncing the scare-mongering and phony arguments of advocates of U.S. retreat. Now they need to, as Kyl suggested, explain why a robust defense capability is required and why decisive action using an array of U.S. tools is essential and can prevent binary choices (war or defeat).