Michael Gerson
Opinion writer August 9, 2012

President Obama has avoided the traditional Democratic reputation for foreign policy weakness by emulating his predecessor in one narrow but important respect. Obama has not only continued George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism — whatever it is currently called — but has also expanded its scope and lethality. The legal and physical infrastructure of the conflict, from the Patriot Act to Guantanamo Bay, remains in place. The mommy party, in this instance, has become daddy with a drone and a hit list.

This has largely taken defense and foreign policy off the table in the current election. Team Romney is convinced, probably correctly, that each day devoted to national security is a day not spent talking about the economy. And criticizing the slayer of Osama bin Laden requires a more sophisticated critique than the presidential campaign — currently at the level of “Romney Hood” vs. “Obamaloney” — will bear.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

But the war on terrorism does not exhaust America’s risks or responsibilities. The risks are increasing, along with doubts about our global role.

Syria’s civil war is approaching genocide as the regime shells villages and conducts mass executions. Russia has used the crisis to reassert its diplomatic influence. The United States, in Duke professor Peter Feaver’s description, has gone from “leading from behind” to “following from behind.” A strategy of stern denunciations, U.N. initiatives and minimal covert support for regime opponents has succeeded only in extending a savage conflict. And this is likely to make eventual retribution by rebels (assuming they win) bloodier, while leaving them more hostile to the United States.

In Afghanistan, the United States conveys the impression of heading rapidly for the exits in 2014 — raising the serious possibility that the Afghan army will fracture, civil war will resume and the Taliban will return to power. Responsible administration officials do their best to dispute this notion.

“We are not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan,” says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But it doesn’t take much imagination for others: frightened shopkeepers and women in Kabul, hedging Pakistani security officials, determined Taliban warlords. They see the shipping containers packing and leaving. And they hear Obama, in his stump speech, taking credit for “winding down the war in Afghanistan” and refocusing the United States on nation-building at home.

In Iran, a strategy of tightened sanctions and nuclear talks remains fruitless. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta recently repainted America’s red line: “We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently reaffirmed his objective: “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” The United States seems to be headed toward some kind of confrontation with Iran, without Obama making any apparent effort to prepare Americans. Unless it is all a disastrous, discrediting bluff.

Obama’s foreign policy team is sometimes praised for its pragmatism, realism, restraint and strategic modesty. Obama himself is said to transcend old ideological divisions. “He followed the same approach in foreign policy he often did elsewhere, which was to detach himself from two opposing camps or schools of thought, sympathize with each and insist the differences between them were less than believed,” James Mann writes in his book “The Obamians.”

But there is a point when ideological detachment becomes inconsistency and irresolution. When caution — elevated to ideology — becomes paralysis. When a foreign policy focused on avoiding errors of commission begins to make serious errors of omission. When inaction magnifies future risks and costs.

In many parts of the world, the Obama doctrine has become an exercise in kicking the can down the road, avoiding or playing down problems that will only grow more complex and dangerous with time. There have been some admirable exceptions — Libya is certainly one — but Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution describes the sum as a “foreign policy of strategic abdication.”

Ideology is partly responsible. Mann’s book describes an Obama foreign policy team that holds a “distinctly more modest and downbeat outlook on America’s role in the world.” Its members seem deeply impressed by America’s limitations — its fiscal constraints and challenged primacy. These beliefs tend to be self-fulfilling. They make a virtue of ceded leadership. And these convictions are reinforced by a political calculation: Who wants to make tough, perilous foreign policy choices in the middle of an election season?

But the result is relevant to the election. Obama’s doctrine of deferred decisions will leave a series of risky endgames for whoever is elected in November, even if it is Obama himself.

michaelgerson@washpost.com