The growing and openly expressed frustration of our Gulf allies as well as Israel with what they perceive as lack of spine on the part of the Obama administration should be an object lesson not only to the administration (which will choose to ignore it) but also to the right-wing isolationists who opposed arming the Syrian rebels or acting militarily after Bashar al-Assad repeatedly used chemical weapons. The conservatives may be more amenable to facts than the president. Let’s at least assume so for purposes of the argument.
When it comes to the administration, “linkage” only works when it comes to pressuring Israel on a peace deal with the Palestinians but never as a guide for U.S. action. Despite replete evidence that Israel is hardly the cause of strife in the region, this president persists with the fiction that success on the “peace process” will help solve other problems. (Before the Arab Spring this was a precept of the Georgetown foreign policy set; now it’s ludicrous.) However, the president would deny until the cows come home that our failure to keep troops in Iraq affects how Iran views us, or that bugging out of Afghanistan encourages Russia to act up. Frankly, too many right-wing Republicans are infected with the “what happens in ____ stays in ____” delusion. Right-wing lawmakers persistently said during the Syria debate that they “didn’t have a dog in the fight” or, as one adviser recently put it to me, they “don’t think of Syria in terms of Iran.” But, of course, Iran thinks of Syria in Iranian terms, and Saudi Arabia thinks of Syria in Iranian terms.
Demonstrations of weakness and lack of resolve in one part of the world — or in the case of this administration, many parts of the world — shape friends’ and foes’ assessment of U.S. behavior. If we pull the rug out from under the Poles and the Czechs (i.e. pulling our anti-missile sites) to curry favor with the Russians, might we be a less-than-stalwart ally elsewhere? You bet. If we “lead from behind,” looking for excuses not to act in Libya and Syria, do the Iranians take away that we are completely unserious about preventing them from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Certainly.
Right-wing isolationists, like the president, would like to delink our behavior in one corner of the world from challenges in other areas. It allows them to adopt the fiction that we can never get involved in these “small” places but be at the ready if something really big comes along. In fact, we shape expectations and establish credibility over the long haul in all those “small” places. This mindset allows Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and others to claim to be great friends of Israel but to disengage in material ways from the region that puts the Jewish state at risk. And it encourages far too many deficit hawks to slash at the military because they imagine that other countries make their judgments independent of our actions, which simply isn’t the case.
When we cut defense to meet a budget number unrelated to our national security needs, that conveys something to friends and foes alike. The same goes for our reluctance to champion human rights. The Iranian regime and other dictatorial leaders are far more likely to repress minorities if we do nothing when the Green Revolution comes along.
This does not mean, as the caricature goes, that we “have to go to war everywhere.” We need to be engaged in the world and use the full panoply of our political, economic, diplomatic and moral tools to make clear what American interests are and what we will do to defend them. We don’t intervene everywhere, but we have to act in meaningful ways in places where our interests and those of our allies are at stake and in which core American values (e.g. prevention of genocide) are at issue. Otherwise friends and foes get the notion that we are indifferent to outcomes. Ironically, the more involved we become non-militarily and the more consistent we are, the less risk there is that we will be challenged when it matters most. That, right-wingers now forget, was the essence of Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength.”
Opponents of intervention often say they are “cautious,” as if inaction is risk free. But inaction and weakness, we’ve learned over and over again, can be extremely risky. “Caution,” then, is making sure we act with purpose and with the requisite power to accomplish our ends.
The consequence of dithering and ducking our responsibilities is that allies go their separate ways, and our foes then see division and weakness. The result is more aggression and opportunistic behavior by our foes. But it never ends! This costs so much! Indeed. “It,” again, is not necessarily military action, but rather a willingness and determination to live up to the responsibilities of being a super-power and, in our case, to be a force for decency and peace in world with too little of either.