Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Dec, 16. (Syrian Arab News Agency/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

By his own estimation, Barack Obama may have finally earned his Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking to a small gathering of journalists last week, the president said that by not sending ground forces to the Middle East over the last few years, he had saved 100 lives per month and many billions of dollars. The math is odd, but as long as he’s at it, let me cite the casualty that’s in plain sight: the straw man he slayed.

Almost no one ever proposed that U.S. troops be deployed in Syria or anywhere else in the Middle East. I say “almost” because there is no accounting for Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), but as for the rest of the government, nobody of consequence ever publicly proposed putting substantial numbers of U.S. service members in the Middle East.

What was widely proposed was something else — establishing a no-fly zone to ground Bashar al-Assad’s gunships and maybe taking a shot or two at a key government installation. Had that been done early on, then a number Obama did not mention might have been avoided: upward of 300,000 Syrian deaths, not to mention a refugee crisis of such magnitude (4 million people) that it has stirred the sleeping dog of European fascism.

Obama should take no pride in a policy that has allowed the Syria situation to get totally out of control. But when it comes to doing nothing — or as little as possible — the president has plenty of company. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a genius masquerading as an ignoramus, proposes an “America-first foreign policy.”

America First” was the name of a 1940s isolationist organization — and Cruz has chosen well. When it comes to Libya, for instance, he would have left Moammar Gadd afi in power. At the recent Republican presidential debate, he said that the United States and its allies toppled Gadd afi “because they wanted to promote democracy.”

Wrong. While there’s nothing particularly sinful about promoting democracy, that’s not why the United States acted in Libya. It did so because Gadd afi had vowed to massacre Libyan insurgents in Benghazi. The United Nations urged a military intervention , and so, significantly, did the Arab League. Cruz, I take it, would have let Gadd afi — a psychopath — kill to his heart’s content.

Far to Cruz’s left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) utters similar nonsense. He chirps about “regime change,” which, like “break up the big banks,” is a tic of his. Regime change can be perilous, but — once again — that’s not what was intended in Libya. Referring to Hillary Clinton, Sanders said: “She was proud to have been involved in regime change in Libya with Gadd afi, without worrying, I think, about what happened the day after.” Not so. She was simply not content to let Gadd afi murder his opponents at will. Had the United States done nothing, for countless Libyans the day after would never have come.

The knee-jerk recourse to slogans — no regime change, America first — obscures a great moral dilemma: What is the United States supposed to do when some madman is attempting a bit of genocide? When in 2014 the Islamic State was chasing the desperate Yazidis up Mount Sinjar in n orthern Iraq, vowing to murder the men and enslave the women, should the United States have done nothing? As it was, about 5,000 Yazidis were killed before the United States used air power to halt the impending slaughter. The Islamic State still holds Yazidi women in sexual slavery.

For better or worse, the United States is a superpower. Our Air Force ain’t what it used to be, but it’s the most powerful in the world and capable of making a difference. It should be deployed primarily in our defense, but it can also be used for humanitarian reasons. If we can stop the slaughter of innocents at little to no cost to us in American lives, we should. (No Americans died in the Libyan bombing campaign.) Could either Cruz or Sanders have stared the Yazidis in the face and said , “S orry, America first, no regime change”?

The same holds for Obama. His foreign policy is such a ringing muddle that the occasional and commendable use of force is being hung around the neck of Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, as if it were Vietnam or, if you will, Iraq. The lives Obama claims to have saved were never at risk to begin with. But plenty of lives were lost because so little was risked, and it was all done so late. The dead of Syria rebuke him — not for failing, but for not even trying.

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