The good news is that we are approaching bipartisan foreign policy consensus. The bad news is that the consensus is: The Obama administration is an embarrassment.
Both former Pentagon chiefs, Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta, said they would not have asked Congress to authorize the use of force. Mr. Gates said Mr. Obama’s proposal for a military strike against Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons was a mistake, while Mr. Panetta said it was a mistake not to carry out an attack.
“My bottom line is that I believe that to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple days, to underscore or validate a point or a principle, is not a strategy,” Mr. Gates said during a forum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “If we launch a military attack, in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of Assad,” he added, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
The more interesting and forceful criticism came from the long-time Democrat Panetta. The Times quotes him as saying,
“When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word . . . Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up.”
On one level the bipartisan disgust over the administration’s handling of Syria is the easy part. Honest officials and foreign policy gurus who believe in a strong U.S. presence in the world can tell when something is a fiasco. It is a common refrain from U.S. allies and expressed in media in those countries: “Where are the Americans?” It’s bad, both Dems and Republicans acknowledge, when the world’s only superpower is MIA.
The hard part, of course, is crafting a way out of the mess the Obama administration has created. The rise of irresponsible and naïve isolationism in both parties may convince a pro-internationalist coalition of Democrats and Republicans – who squabbled over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – that they have more in common with each other than they do with the isolationist simpletons in their respective parties. They, in turn, can demand more competent foreign policy execution than the current administration has provided.
There actually is more bipartisan agreement on basic foreign policy objectives now that we are past the fight over Iraq and have witnessed the calamities attendant to the Arab Spring. Bipartisanship, long sought on foreign policy, might finally be here.
Consider this on Syria:
So our concern is not just about some far off land oceans away. That’s not what this is about. Our concern with the cause of the defenseless people of Syria is about choices that will directly affect our role in the world and our interests in the world. It is also profoundly about who we are. We are the United States of America. We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations. This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us. And it matters to who we are. And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world. My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.
That was Secretary of State John Kerry, but it is a statement of principle that many Republicans of the non-isolationist bent could readily applaud. (The problem was that President Obama didn’t really mean all that.)
Now consider this:
Americans need to be told clearly what’s at stake in Syria. And with all due respect to the Administration, it is far more than an international norm about chemical weapons, which sounds like political science. Americans need to care about the conflict in Syria because it is becoming a failed state in the heart of the Middle East; because it is a growth hormone for Al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies; because it is now a regional catastrophe that threatens the very existence of some of our closest friends and allies, who are indispensable to the safety of every American; and because it is the central front of the Iranian regime’s battle to dominate the Middle East. These are the national security interests that we have at stake in Syria. It’s one thing for Americans to hear this from an old member of Congress like me. It’s quite another for them to hear it from their president.
That was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. He and Kerry are certainly more in sync than McCain is with many Republicans or Kerry is with the left.
I don’t want to minimize real differences between the parties, but on issues like Iran, Congress is united. (The problem, again, is getting the president to match actions with words.) If in the tumult over the most incompetent manifestation of Obama’s foreign policy to date there can be broader agreement on principles that should be at the center of foreign policy (e.g. American values and interests must be joined; the United States will act with allies but, if not, then unilaterally to protect its national security interests; “ending wars” isn’t a foreign policy), then after Obama leaves office there might be the basis for a bipartisan, coherent foreign policy that either a Democratic or Republican internationalist president could support.