September 1, 2013

If you care about foreign policy, think American strength and credibility are essential to our security and the world’s stability and understand that we are in danger of losing influence in the world — and the Middle East specifically — you probably found this week to be the most disturbing in a long, long time. I sure did.

Syrians rally in Philadelphia against U.S. involvement in Syria. (Chris Post/Associated Press) Syrians rally in Philadelphia against U.S. involvement in Syria. (Chris Post/Associated Press)

The president was largely absent (except at the self-indulgent March on Washington anniversary speech) and entirely feckless. After he was bitterly criticized for hiding behind Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s skirts, he belatedly gave a live statement on Saturday. After a week insisting he needed no congressional action, Obama reversed course and said he would seek authorization. But once again his self-imposed restrictions (“limited” and “narrow”) and the suggestion he could wait weeks or even a month reinforced his fundamental lack of seriousness and urgency. This seems to be foreign policy by polls (huge percentages of respondents want Congress to authorize action). By this time, surely, Bashar al-Assad has taken defensive measures. How many more Syrians will die by gas or conventional weapons while he is dithering?

Also this week we lost the support of our closest allies. We seem bent on a strategy entirely at odds with our rhetoric. And Iranian mullahs are licking their lips, ready to join the club of nuclear-armed powers. This is grim stuff. But I want to point out some positives as well.

First, we have the makings of a true bipartisan foreign policy with liberal and conservative interventionists facing off against isolationists on the right and left. Kerry’s remarks on Friday could have been given by an official in the Bush administration. At least some on the left now understand the connection between human rights and geopolitics and the limits of international law and multi-lateral bodies.

There are differences to be sure concerning Syria and much else. But now Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have more in common than Levin does with many Democrats and McCain does with a chunk of the right. This is extremely important, providing hope for more continuity when the White House switches parties and for removing national security from the toxic stew of partisan politics. The danger for America is that the isolationists will prevail, and this brings us to a second point.

In Syria we see the collapse of the left-wing foreign policy paradigm. You can’t engage dictators. You can’t rely on the United Nations. You can’t disengage from the world. You can’t neglect American hard power. If you do, you get the mess we are currently facing and embolden mad men. Now that the shoe is on a Democrat’s foot we can see the ways in which the left has distorted George W. Bush’s record and departed from basic precepts of, if you will, smart diplomacy.

In addition, this week’s developments and the chaos that surely will ensue should elevate the importance of foreign policy in the next election. We can’t go through another 2012 when foreign policy was largely ignored by the candidates and the media. The public needs to understand the candidates’ views and assess their character. (Do they understand that failure to act sooner when no jihadists were present and to aid the anti-Assad forces for two years now leaves us with only a military option?)

Moreover, the Syria debacle is a litmus test for fitness for high office. At this point those who demand we do nothing about Bashar al-Assad (even if we had a more able president) and/or approved our turning a blind eye to a developing crisis for over two years have no business leading in dangerous times. Those, whether or not they now favor military action (some understandably have no faith in the president’s leadership), who perceive the United States has failed badly, lost credibility and neglected its responsibilities because of the fantasy of American disengagement are at least minimally qualified to lead in the future.

And let’s get real: The debacle is the result of four years of foreign policy drift under President Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. (As on Iraq, does she now favor military action? Or is she with Sen. Rand Paul on this one? Someone should press her for an answer. ) Presumably she knew of and/or approved refusal to provide even gas masks to Syrian rebels and civilians. She certainly sung Assad’s praises far too long and defended a hapless policy. If Benghazi wasn’t enough to convince you of her complete incompetence, this should do it.

It is distressing when a president performs as badly as Obama did this week. Sending out Kerry to give comments without first deciding on a policy was downright weird, but at least we had the opportunity to hear from his lips many of the concerns foreign policy hawks have been voicing for years. All of that said, perhaps this week will scramble the foreign policy equation in a positive way and what will emerge is a bipartisan commitment to internationalism and the determination to never again elect a president this incapable of filling the role of commander in chief.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.