In his roundabout way, President Obama has repudiated during the Syria debacle a number of phony nostrums of the left, including some of which he has propounded since he started running for president. This is not a matter of hypocrisy, as some have charged. It is quite simply that what he and the left have believed in doesn’t match how the real world operates. Now it is not simply George W. Bush who ran into certain difficulties; these challenges are emblematic of the world in which we live.
So let’s recap the notions we have seen play out of late:
The United Nations cannot act against rogue states or international miscreants, a fact largely due to the veto that Russia and China hold. Our allies are often weak and unpersuadable, making unilateral action by the U.S. necessary in critical instances.
The United States cannot “end wars” or pretend a “decade of war is ending.” We can win or lose wars or stay out of them, but conflicts persist.
We cannot retrench. When the United States does not engage, crises tend to get worse, not better. Had we given aid and assistance to the non-jihadi rebels early on, we would now not be facing a Hobson’s choice.
We cannot be a good friend to Israel or our Gulf allies unless we exercise leadership and influence the Middle East. Otherwise, the Russia-Iran-Syria axis dominates.
We cannot count on Russia to behave in ways we would like. “Reset” is a canard if we think unilateral gestures and nice talk will persuade Russia to see things our way.
We cannot cut our military willy-nilly. Even without major ground operations, there are challenges to be met. Military preparedness is essential, and we play with fire by neglecting our military.
We cannot turn foreign-policy decisions into partisan exercises or contend that strong foreign policy must be traded for “nation-building at home.” The current morass over Syria is, in large part, because the president is wary of crossing his own party and wants to stick Republicans with a decision that is his to make.
We cannot neglect constant public discussion by the president of our national security needs. The public overwhelmingly opposes action in Syria because for two years the president shunted the issue aside and even now won’t engage the country. In the absence of leadership, Americans’ natural aversion to military action remains strong.
We cannot have in key national security positions people who are not experienced and respected. Part of the problem the president faces is that he has exactly one person — Secretary of State John Kerry — who carries weight with the public and allies. The absence of respected advisers is a fatal flaw in any administration’s foreign policy.
Allies cannot be neglected. Bush, contrary to the liberal view, maintained excellent relations with key allies, including Britain, Australia. Israel, India, Sunni Gulf states and a variety of Eastern European nations. He was able to assemble a “coalition of the willing” because they understood his goals and could take him at his word.
We cannot have a secretary of state who thinks the number of frequent-flyer miles is the best indicator of success. In fact, it may be the opposite. The secretary must have real influence with the president and the ability to construct and execute long-term policy.
We cannot pretend that weakness in some parts of the world (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq) doesn’t influence allies and friends elsewhere (e.g. in Syria, Egypt). We lose credibility when the United States does not keep its commitments, doesn’t back up its word with deeds and neglects to maintain a strong defense.
We cannot pretend strongmen are the least of evils. Bashar al-Assad is in fact the worst leader for Syria because his continued rule will reinforce the acceptability of WMD use and give Iran a huge victory. Recognizing free peoples who will move their countries in positive ways (whether in Egypt or Syria) sooner rather than later is essential.
A bipartisan foreign policy that accepts these realities can ensure greater consistency from administration to administration and avoid the utter disaster Obama has made of our international standing and alliances. Jimmy Carter got a wake-up call when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; maybe Syria will be Obama’s wake-up call. We’d better hope so.