The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP needs a foreign policy adult

The president’s embarrassingly weak response to Russian aggression in Europe, following his about-face on Syrian use of WMDs last year and the deeply flawed interim Iran agreement, should unnerve even the most loyal Democrats. The president is overwhelmed, if not paralyzed, by world events, and the plethora of threats increase with each failed response to determined adversaries. America is vulnerable because our president has been weak and his policies foolish.

The immediate and long-term implications for U.S. national security are grave. As David Kramer of Freedom House writes, “After all, if the authoritarian tyrant Vladimir Putin is allowed to get away with his unprovoked attack against his neighbor, a blatant violation of that country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, then U.S. credibility, already damaged by Obama’s poor handling of Syria, will be down to zero.” President Obama’s weakness will accelerate our allies’ willingness to go it alone, especially in the Middle East. For them to depend on the Obama  administration would be irresponsible at this point. His cluelessness will encourage not only Russia but also China, Iran and North Korea to test if there is any red line the president will defend.

Moreover, the White House is spinning away, insisting the invasion of Ukraine makes Obama look strong. Such is the self-delusion that has infected the White House. Rather than respond with actions to Putin or tough words for Iran and/or Syria, Obama threatens Israel, vowing the United States will be unable to defend it if it doesn’t get on board with the “peace process,” bizarrely suggests the Palestinian Authority’s president (who incites violence and won’t recognize the Jewish state) is ready for peace and decries those (presumably senators in his own party) who favor sanctions. His angry words reveal a president who has ceased to pay attention to facts.

His twisted perception and his refusal to recognize his own missteps should put Israel and its friends on notice: This president is a greater hindrance to Israel’s security than any American president in history. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s spokesman responded on the record to the president’s outburst: “There should never be any question that the United States will assist our ally Israel if needed against all aggressors. Threatening that relationship will delay peace, not hasten it.”

The president’s foreign policy collapse has a number of political ramifications for the pro-Israel community and for both political parties.

A GOP aide remarked on the president’s anti-Israel spasm: “This is stunningly one-sided. When will the president speak of Palestinian intransigence, refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, continued incitement of hatred against Israel and the continued threat of terrorism that Israel faces from groups who refuse to even acknowledge Israel’s existence?” Never, of course. Michael Makovsky, CEO of pro-Israel JINSA, commented on the president’s anti-Israel diatribe: “This public blast right now against Israel was not only unwarranted and unjust, but clearly counterproductive, making the motivation suspicious. But it should nicely lift the spirits of Iran and other enemies.”

So what should AIPAC members do when they hear Secretary of State John Kerry’s platitudinous remarks later today assuring them what a dear friend of Israel this administration is — laugh or cry? Do AIPAC officials simply ignore the president’s provocation, confirming suspicions that it lacks the will or ability to take on the administration?

As for the domestic landscape, the president’s folly has the potential to shake some in Congress out of their slumber. There is now a growing bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill that things have gone terribly wrong.

First, pressure will increase on Democrats in the Senate to stop circling the wagons around the White House and act in bipartisan fashion to shore up American security. This includes sanctions on Iran, passage of a more robust defense budget and serious doubts about half-baked ideas to undermine the National Security Agency. Those who’ve stuck the closest to the president are the most vulnerable themselves now; if they want to separate themselves from policies leading America into peril, now is the time to act.

Second, the Obama debacle with regard to Ukraine and hostility toward Iran sanctions go a long way toward discrediting the isolationist right, who seem to have sympathy with both. With the exception of the president himself, no one has looked less able to lead America in dangerous times than Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He defends Bashar al-Assad and Putin, refuses to sign on to Iran sanctions, joins the far left in an effort to hamstring our intelligence-gathering and seems generally oblivious to international reality. His accusation that Christian Zionists want war is eerily similar to the administration’s accusation that Iran sanction proponents are warmongers.

Perhaps in some libertarian tracts “increased trade” or “economic integration” can prevent international aggression; in the real world this comes off as dangerous nonsense. Look for more Republicans, even on the far right, to follow Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has sounded exceptionally hawkish over the last few weeks; whether born of expediency or not, he gives voice to the unease over national security dangers we face because of a lack of presidential leadership.

The Obama foreign policy meltdown is also very bad news indeed for Hillary Clinton, who cheerily advocated engagement with Iran, championed Russian reset and never raised a peep about dangerous cuts to defense. She helped construct the administration’s approach to foreign policy, the very policy that now tempts aggressors. Her “experience” is now her greatest liability. The usually Clinton-friendly Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) bashed her for Russian reset: “Of course she got it wrong. She believed that somehow there would be a reset with a guy who was a KGB colonel who always had ambitions to restore the Russian empire. That’s what this is all about.”  Clinton’s greatest weakness has never been her avarice or her husband, but her competency. Between Benghazi (where she got caught flat-footed on al-Qaeda’s spread in North Africa) and Russia, there is reason to question her lack of foresightedness and judgment. And does she share the president’s view that the “peace process” failure is Israel’s fault? She has an obligation to speak out if she doesn’t.

And finally, recent events may transform the 2016 race. Mitt Romney was right about Russia and much else on the international front, but his campaign shied away from discussing national security. The next nominee cannot do so, and the GOP must demand a level of specificity from presidential contenders as to their international vision and priorities, defense budget plans, stance on intelligence-gathering and response to Iran, Russia and China.

The next president’s temperament also will be key. Boldness and resoluteness are required, but voters will reject rash or reckless voices. Candidates with military experience (Texas Gov. Rick Perry), an internationalist perspective (former Florida governor Jeb Bush), and/or a thorough understanding of the threats we face (e.g. Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan) will have a leg up; no matter how competent a governor, he won’t be able to slide by without mastering national security issues and fleshing out his world view. Look for the 2016 buzz to increase about Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a former congressman and stout defender of Israel and of America’s role in the world.

Now is no time for foreign policy naïfs and novices. The president has put the West in grave danger by refusing to recognize reality. The GOP and the country will need  foreign policy grown-ups.