The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A teachable moment in foreign policy

Conservative critics of the president’s foreign policy were relieved when President Obama initiated humanitarian relief efforts and air strikes in Iraq. They were, however, rightly worried that there is no concerted strategy to accomplish any national objective, say, the destruction of the Islamic State. His action seemed designed to fend off criticism he is doing nothing rather than devote sufficient resources to halting the metastasizing threat of jihadism throughout the region.

Indeed, the president went out of his way in his remarks Thursday night to avoid explaining the threat posed by a terrorist state to the United States. It’s as if explaining the threat would require a well-thought-out strategic response and determination to protect our national security, neither of which the president evidences. His entire demeanor was that of a truculent teenager forced to perform some disagreeable chore. His lack of enthusiasm, verging on resentment for carrying out his obligations as commander in chief, is remarkable. Military action in Iraq may have some interesting consequences. It may drive home some hard foreign policy lessons for the public, politicians and pundits:

  • We should have left a stay-behind force in Iraq to pressure the government to rise above sectarianism and to keep jihadists at bay.
  • It was Hillary Clinton’s job to figure out how to leave that force behind. She either didn’t take it seriously, didn’t know how to accomplish it or didn’t have that directive from the president.
  • Hillary Clinton’s rewrite of history on the subject is evidence of her culpability in the current mess.
  • We don’t “end” wars by leaving.
  • If we prematurely exit and signal unseriousness about retaining our gains, we will only have to go back later.
  • Obama and Clinton’s bragging about putting al-Qaeda back on its heels was ludicrously and tragically wrong, leaving us unprepared for the disaster in Libya (which is worsening) and Iraq’s descent into chaos.
  • Had we taken the very same action – humanitarian relief and discrete air strikes – years ago in Syria it would not have become a blood bath, jihadis would not have poured in and Iran would not have extended its influence in the region.
  • The idea that the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” was the most important issue in the Middle East, a part of liberal foreign policy dogma, is, we see again, entirely false.
  • We may regrettably hurt or kill innocents in Iraq. If so, the president should explain that this is not “appalling” or “indefensible” but an inevitable and horrible result of war. He might want to clarify that “war crimes” are measured by intent and that it is not always possible to “be more careful” with regard to civilians.
  • The notion that we can eliminate all foreign aid without dire humanitarian and strategic consequences is a cruel deception based on wrong-headed ideology and the misnomer that foreign aid is a significant budget item.
  • We actually do need a military that can fight more than one war at a time. The president’s reversal of this long-held strategic position is reckless in a world where the Islamic State, Iran, Russia and China will all take advantage if the United States is occupied elsewhere. We also have to pay for that military.
  • The next president must have the will, vision and judgment to reverse the catastrophic policies of this administration and to level with the American people about the threats we face.
  • It is irresponsible in a world of the Islamic State, Iranian terror networks and cyberterrorism to disrupt intelligence surveillance programs that are working or to let jihadists out of Gitmo. Likewise, ruling out use of drones to take out American jihadists overseas will increase the danger to our troops and to the homeland.

Given the Democrats’ proclivity to circle the wagons around their own president (while playing partisan politics with a Republican commander in chief), we may see some bipartisan support for a more muscular approach to foreign policy. Unfortunately that comes 5 1/2 years late at a tremendous cost to the United States and the world.