Foreign policy is back in the news in a big way these days. With Iran snubbing its nose at the notion it must dismantle its illegal nuclear weapons program and Russia occupying both Georgia and Ukraine, it is worth remembering that many of the foreign policy nostrums repeated in the media and by isolationists on the left and right are just not true:
Congress can’t lead on foreign policy. To the contrary, House and Senate leaders have been more vocal than the White House and more creative in offering a variety of measures designed to pressure Russia to back down. The House zipped through loan guarantees for Ukraine on Thursday. When the president is weak, Congress can successfully fortify him.
Republicans have gone isolationist. That’s not true either. On Thursday every major speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference touched to one degree or another on foreign policy, all arguing for a more robust presence in the world. Two of the best speeches (from Sen. Marco Rubio and John Bolton) that gained the biggest applause were almost entirely devoted to foreign policy Republicans have lacked leadership on the issue; now that they have it, look for the GOP to confirm national security as an integral part of its message. Insofar as there is widespread agreement in the party, it’s an issue on which the GOP can, by and large, offer a united front.
No one cares about foreign policy. That might have been true – until the wheels come off the bus. Americans don’t like their country to be weak, and they understand that the hapless Europeans aren’t going to check Russian President Vladimir Putin; America will have to. Our foreign-policy woes have also become a sign of American decline, and Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who preach a message like “An America that works and leads in the world” will, I suspect, resonate.
The economy, not foreign policy, is what is important. As we heard from Rubio and others at CPAC, war, instability and totalitarian threats are generally bad for business. Iran may be “open for business,” but if it gets the bomb, watch gas prices soar and the markets crash. The false division between economic prosperity and international strength has been perpetrated by a president who has no desire to project American power on the international stage.
Do you want war, well do you? That is the mother of all straw men, the argument Obama deploys to avoid acting everywhere from Iraq to Ukraine to Venezuela to the Far East. What we’ve seen vividly is that America retrenchment breeds aggression by foes like Syria, Iran and Russia. Signs of weakness in one part of the world (e.g. backing down on the red line in Syria) are interpreted as a green light to attack the West elsewhere (as in Ukraine). There are a range of economic, diplomatic and rhetorical tools at a president’s disposal that can, if exercised properly, avoid a no-win situation down the road (e.g. Syria) and/or make diplomacy effective.
We don’t need a big military. The administration gets an “F” in predicting foreign-policy threats. Its certainty that a “decade of war is ending” suggests a lack of appreciation for the diversity of threats we face. If we are interested in preserving a reasonable risk margin (e.g. the ability to fight two wars at the same time) and deterring aggression (e.g. China asserting claims in the South China Sea), we need to fund a properly sized, ready and equipped military.
If there is an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement, most of the Middle East’s problems will go away. Oh come on – not even Obama believes that anymore. Does he?