Some savvier observers of the Republican national security debate are beginning to note that it’s a liability, not an asset, to be associated with a foreign policy of retrenchment and detachment. You don’t have to be a defender of the Iraq war to know that the current foreign policy has resulted in worse results in more places than at any time in recent memory.
President Obama, as most academic leftists do, came into office believing that the United States was responsible for many of the world’s ills and that by knocking ourselves down, engaging with foes and deferring to others, we and the world would be better off. That turned out to be dangerously wrongheaded. NATO and the United Nations don’t really operate unless the United States leads. We don’t get to “pivot” away from problematic regions. Bad actors are opportunistic and rush to fill the void left by U.S. leadership. As his foreign policy comes apart at the seams and his foreign policy views turn out to be entirely unworkable, the president is now paralyzed or confused or depressed, or something.
The media have made much of the GOP debate about foreign policy, but that debate is giving forth to consensus that a more engaged, stronger robust policy that confronts and checks our foes must replace the reactive one we now have. (Obama can barely keep up with the nonstop flow of crisis. Perhaps a daily generic statement would suffice: “We are very disturbed. We will investigate and consult with our allies. All civilized countries have an interest in resolving this. This will have serious consequences.”) I suspect not a single GOP presidential candidate will join Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in arguing that we need fewer overseas troops and bases, a smaller military, a ban on the use of drones against American jihadists and trials in the United States for suspected terrorists. Even Paul is unlikely to keep arguing that we have no dog in the fight between Iraq and the Islamic State or that we should stop “tweaking” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But what about the Democrats? They finally got their McGovernite foreign policy and it flopped miserably. Hillary Clinton can say a thousand times over that “reset worked,” but it didn’t, as the people of Ukraine, Syria (where Russian weapons flow to Bashar al-Assad) and Russia itself can attest. Obama and John Kerry can swear that “gaps are narrowing” between Iran and the P5+1, but without actual dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program — something Iran’s supreme leader refuses to contemplate — those gaps will be as wide as ever. What do Hillary Clinton or liberal challengers or left-leaning think tanks propose we should do instead?
Clinton tried to be the sensible one on foreign policy in 2008 and got beaten. She might try again, but her career is not studded with acts of political courage or efforts to go against the grain of her base. The party could double down on defeatism and unilateral disarmament, but in a general election with Russia on the march, the Middle East in flames and Iran emerging as a threshold nuclear state, that might be enough to send the voters running.
It would seem that it is up to the Democratic grown-ups in the Senate and center-left think tanks to give some honest critiques as to what went wrong and provide some constructive advice to recalibrate the party. Negotiation without leverage is an invitation for further aggression by our foes. To be indifferent to repression abroad is morally abhorrent and self-defeating. Sometimes the only path to peace is defeating decisively an implacable enemy. (Michael Oren puts it brilliantly: “To guarantee peace, this war must be given a chance.”)
These are basic, inescapable propositions confirmed by 5 1/2 years of foreign policy mismanagement and foolishness. Unless the Democratic Party undergoes some self-reflection, it is likely to find itself back in the political wilderness. Obama has firmly and finally discredited McGovernism, and there is no going back.