One of the most disingenuous reasons for the president’s refusal to lead on the international stage and his insistence on leaving and avoiding conflicts (what he incorrectly terms “ending” wars), regardless of our national interests, is his assertion that we must “nation build at home.”
For starters, this is noxious. We have a nation with developed institutions, a functioning legal system and, despite his mismanagement, a resilient economy. To compare us to countries that lack all three is in keeping with the president’s inappropriate willingness to lessen American prestige and underplay our distinctive position in the world.
Second, it’s not true that we must choose between economic and educational advances at home and responsible international action abroad. A slew of his predecessors was able to balance both sides of the equation — and for good reason. Unlike military expenditures, which are steep and must be undertaken by the federal government, the private economy and civil society can rely on markets, communities, states and cities. (If Keynesian economics worked, we’d have spent our way to prosperity several times over.) It doesn’t “cost” the taxpayers something in the way building a military and training troops does to reduce burdensome regulations, reform the tax code, pursue free-trade agreements and allow competent state governors to run their states.
In addition, we know that a robust, effective foreign policy and the stability America can encourage our domestic prosperity. International trade, access to oil and other resources and minimization of war and conflict go hand in hand with a successful globalized economy.
But perhaps the biggest problem with Obama’s articulation is that his grandiose domestic plans (“nation building”) aren’t being accomplished and make him appear feckless. Put another way, do we have to prematurely exit from Afghanistan to roll out a disastrous health-care plan and wind up in a nonsensical government shutdown? If anything, his domestic follies are making us seem even less capable internationally.
There is nothing quite like our Chinese bankers lecturing us about getting our house in order — and thereby convey to all of Asia (to which we were supposed to “pivot”) the United States is hapless and unreliable.
No one argues that a robust U.S. economy is needed to undergird an effective foreign policy. But it is quite another thing, as Obama and a band of right-wing isolationists claim, that we must exit the world to restore prosperity. What would help in both the domestic and international realms is a president who didn’t appear anxious to shirk U.S. responsibilities and unable to keep his word to allies or stick to warnings against enemies, and who wasn’t consumed with domestic partisanship at the exclusion of everything else. If the president built up his prestige and support by showing himself to be bigger than partisan squabbles he, the country and the international scene would all be better off.