Hillary Clinton at a town hall-style campaign event on Dec. 29 in Portsmouth, N.H. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
Editorial page editor, 2000-2021

As President Obama has conducted his ill-fated experiment in diminished U.S. leadership, he has fended off critics with what many dismissed as a straw-man argument: that the only alternative to his approach was mindless bellicosity.

Then Ted Cruz came along — and turned out to be the straw man. When the Republican Texas senator said of the Islamic State that he would “carpet-bomb them into oblivion” and find out “if sand can glow in the dark,” it seemed he wanted to prove that mindless bellicosity was no figment of Obama’s imagination.

But there is a common thread to what Obama and Cruz offer: the false promise of an easy way out for the United States in the fight against terrorism.

Obama wanted Americans to believe, and may have believed himself, that the “tide of war is receding,” as he said in 2011. It turned out that he could end the United States’ wars, temporarily, but that didn’t mean the wars ended — and before long, the president was forced to return Americans to battle.

Cruz — like Donald Trump, who promises to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of” the Islamic State — wants Americans to believe that the bad guys can be defeated speedily and easily, with no sacrifice by Americans and no harm to American values.

But carpet-bombing kills civilians, not terrorists. Pilots need information that only people on the ground can provide, and air power succeeds only as part of a larger military and political strategy. For the United States, there is, in reality, no alternative to sustained, years-long commitment to the world’s most troubled region. That doesn’t mean an invasion by hundreds of thousands of troops, but it does demand intelligent diplomatic, economic and military engagement.

That’s not a popular thing for any politician to say. Fortunately, at least one candidate is saying it. Ironically, perhaps, that candidate is Obama’s former secretary of state.

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in November, Hillary Clinton said that the United States needs to wage both “an immediate war against an urgent enemy” and “a generational struggle against an ideology with deep roots.”

“It will require sustained commitment in every pillar of American power,” Clinton said. “This is a worldwide fight, and America must lead it.”

There was more. “We should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS,” she said. She cited the Sunni awakening in 2007 in Iraq as a successful model and said, “We need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening.” She called for no-fly zones in Syria, which Obama has steadily opposed.

Perhaps most telling, she promised to recommit the United States to the kind of sustained, values-based engagement that (though she didn’t say this) Obama has deemphasized and that Cruz and Trump, with their odd mixture of pugnacity and isolationism, would jettison.

“We have to join with our partners to do the patient, steady work of empowering moderates and marginalizing extremists, supporting democratic institutions and the rule of law, creating economic growth that supports stability, working to curb corruption, helping train effective and accountable law enforcement, intelligence, and counterterrorism services,” Clinton said.

Sustaining such views through a presidential campaign won’t be easy. Voters much prefer, understandably, to be told that the country can concentrate, as Obama told them, on “nation-building here at home.” It’s even more tempting to believe that we can be made safe by obliterating the bad guys as if in a video game.

Not every Republican is peddling the Cruz-Trump snake oil. But Clinton’s political challenge is particularly acute since she has to distance herself from a record that she helped shape — and do so without alienating the most ardent supporters of a president she worked for. Her unconvincing repudiation of the Pacific trade deal that she helped design illustrates the pressures. And the policies that Clinton promotes aren’t easy, as critics rightly point out. There’s no recipe for supporting democratic institutions that always works.

But on issues of U.S. leadership, Clinton seems disinclined to compromise, despite pressure from a dovish primary electorate. That may reflect a calculation of what will sell best in the general election, but it also seems to reflect core principles — principles that she argued for, sometimes unsuccessfully, as secretary, and principles on which almost certainly she would govern as president.

Her views have the added virtue of being right. Americans can see that Obama’s policy of premature disengagement hasn’t worked in Libya, Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. Will they also see through Cruz’s phony alternative? That is one of the key questions to be answered in 2016.

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