While the president obsesses about anti-gun legislation that at best will only make liberals feel better and his secretary of state is urging Turkey to be a player in the “peace process” (you couldn’t make up this lunacy if you tried), real dangers are multiplying in the world as a direct result of the president’s foreign policy blunders.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq said it has merged with a Syrian rebel extremist faction, in a push by the terrorist organization to exert more influence on the Syrian rebellion and its outcome.

The declaration reflects cross-border coordination between al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria’s Jabhat al Nusra, or the al Nusra Front, a force with growing battlefield clout that has been a target of U.S. efforts to isolate rebel extremists in Syria. The two groups are already closely linked; when the U.S. designated the Syrian group as a terrorist organization in December, it described al Nusra as an alias for the Iraqi group.

Former national security official Eliot Cohen e-mails me, “Unfortunately, we’re seeing here the fruits of a doubly bad policy — the precipitate exit from Iraq, and a passive attitude towards the Syrian civil war. But it won’t end here — this is going to get worse, and in multiple directions, to include much greater terror and massacre in Syria and beyond.”

Defense analyst Thomas Joscelyn was among the first to reveal this connection. Now that it is common knowledge, he writes:

Why did AQI not announce its presence inside Syria from the very beginning? Al Baghdadi says this was “due to security reasons,” which are presumably no longer a concern. Al Qaeda’s brand was also tarnished inside Iraq because of its indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims. This undoubtedly led the group to pick a new, clean brand for its Syrian expansion.

None of this is surprising, of course. There were numerous reasons to see al Qaeda’s hand in the Al Nusrah Front from the very beginning. And the State Department explained all of this in its December 2012 designation of the organization, in which Foggy Bottom explained the group was simply operating under an alias for AQI.

Since at least 2011, al Qaeda has considered Iraq and Syria as one theater for war.

The United States, however, is under the delusional view that our exit from theaters of war means a decade of war is “ending,” has abandoned Iraq, allowed al-Qaeda to fester in North Africa and sat passively by as these same jihadists opportunistically rushed into Libya and Syria and now may get their hands on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the ongoing carnage has taken tens of thousands of lives and sent refugees pouring into neighboring countries, risking destabilizing friendly governments.

Opponents of American involvement will seize on the news as justification for staying clear of Syria. But there is no steering clear of a client of Iran or of one in which WMDs are now up for grabs.

What could we have done? Well, imagine the following: We managed to leave a significant peacetime troop presence in Iraq (as we had in South Korea and Germany). Sectarian violence was thereby reduced to a minimum and Iranian influence kept at bay. Rather than take victory laps after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, we recognized the spread of al-Qaeda in North Africa and the deteriorating situation in Libya. We moved to either secure or remove our consulate in Benghazi (preventing the deaths of our ambassador and three others) and to provide economic and technical assistance to the new Libyan government so as to bolster internal security and centralize anti-terrorist forces. In Syria, rather than insist Bashar al-Assad was a reformer for months and months, we moved swiftly to impose our own sanctions and garner cooperation from the European Union and Arab League. We quickly made contact with what was then a non-jihadist opposition, and  provided technical assistance and, if needed, lethal aid. To tip the balance further and hasten Assad’s exit (before al-Qaeda forces moved in) we set up a no-fly zone to allow civilians to seek refuge and anti-Assad forces to coalesce, organize and assemble.

That’s a lot of effort and would have required some expenditure. But the risks to American forces would have been low and the payoff in terms of thwarting Iranian influence, ushering in Assad’s downfall, and checking the spread of al-Qaeda would have been significant. And would that forceful action have registered in Tehran and Pyongyang that we mean business? Very possibly. At the very least, we would have sent the message that the United States has staying power, is a reliable ally and is invariably on the side of secular, pro-democratic forces.

This is what a proactive, engaged foreign policy might look like. It is not about going to war at the drop of a hat. However, it does not operate on wishful thinking. It does not suppose passivity is an effective response to rogue nations and jihadis. We act early to prevent greater violence and danger when we have non-military options.

The administration is hopelessly naive and reactive. But on the right, conservatives could use some grown-up, sober leadership that neither leaps before it looks nor turns a blind eye toward threats. There must be a more thoughtful and forward-looking alternative to the polarized notions that American military involvement is either the first resort or is never an option. The GOP and the country desperately need a thoughtful advocate of a reality-based foreign policy that can articulate why it is in America’s interests to act proactively and strategically in the world to advance our interests and check the spread of malevolent forces. Who will step up to the plate?