Commentary Magazine


Topic: foreign policy

“Greatness,” Humility, and the Presidency

It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

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It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

The piece is headlined “Obama and the End of Greatness.” The story is a close relative of the “America the ungovernable” narrative, in which failed Democratic presidents inspire liberal commentators to decide that if someone like Obama can’t succeed, the job is too difficult for one man. That narrative is false, of course; Obama is simply not very good at his job and has personality traits that compel him to lash out and blame others instead of changing course. The Shesol conceit is similar: Obama turned out not to be a great president but perhaps we don’t need or can’t have or shouldn’t expect great presidents at all.

This, too, is wrong. But it’s wrong in an interesting way. Obama was the one who raised expectations, and his followers merely echoed his vainglorious messianic pronouncements. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the country agreeing on a “great” modern president if only because the two major parties have moved so far apart that they now view governing in completely different ways. Liberals would measure a great president according to how much legislation he passed giving himself and the government he leads, essentially, more power. Conservatives aren’t opposed to governing–as the left often accuses them of being–but rather see good governance from the executive in terms of devolving power back to the people.

Yet as humble as we should be about presidential greatness, a couple of other stories today indicate that letting Obama off the hook requires some sleight of hand. One story is on former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer’s interview with the Times of Israel on the U.S.-Israel relationship under Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although each is only one person overseeing a government that tends to get along quite well most of the time with the other, Kurtzer said:

The bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu “informs the entire relationship because bureaucracies and political systems tend to take their energy from the leadership,” Kurtzer told The Times of Israel on Tuesday in Jerusalem. “And if the two leaders are not getting along, as they don’t, then you’ve got a problem.”

This can be seen quite clearly in the case of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, as Obama personally intervened in what are usually lower-level interactions in order to suspend weapons transfers to Israel during wartime. But the point is a more general one: despite the media’s disdain for this particular criticism of Obama, there really is such a thing as leadership, and it really does affect the energy and attitude of other public servants. If anything this is even more the case under a Democrat, since–as we’ve seen with the IRS targeting and the manifold shenanigans of Eric Holder’s Justice Department, among others–the federal bureaucracy tends to share the left’s worldview and takes its cues from the top.

And the other story that brings all this together is Eliana Johnson’s preview of Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech tonight. Johnson was given an advance text of the speech, and writes about the realism Paul hopes to inject into American foreign policy. This is a familiar tune, but it’s understandable that Paul feels the need to address it again, since he still finds himself accused of isolationism that he vigorously denies. It will probably help–and is unlikely to hurt–to spell out in detail (if that’s what he intends to do) just how his policy instincts can be applied to specific threats.

But this part of Johnson’s story jumped out: “In the realm of foreign policy, however, Paul paints himself as hardheaded and rational. His lodestars are the Cold War strategist George F. Kennan and the Reagan-era secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger.” I would say, first of all, that Republicans unnerved by what they see as Bakerite instincts will probably not be overjoyed by references to Caspar Weinberger. But more important was the context Johnson provided to Kennan’s belief in prioritizing vital over peripheral interests:

At times, however, he found it difficult to distinguish between them, initially opposing the Truman Doctrine to aid free people resisting Communist expansion because the strategy was too universalistic, then changing his mind, saying he had underestimated the importance of psychological warfare, of pushing back against the Soviets even when vital American interests were not under attack.

This is a good example of something that is often overlooked. Kennan has achieved a kind of mythical stature, and it’s true he made important contributions to American diplomacy in the early Cold War years. However, Harry Truman was the visionary (perhaps along with Acheson), not Kennan. Truman’s understanding of how to build a stable, democratic postwar order was superior to Kennan’s, and it isn’t even close (this is perhaps because democracy wasn’t exactly Kennan’s guiding principle). Kennan may have been a distinguished intellectual, but Truman ran circles around him. Had Kennan’s vision been followed instead of Truman’s, we would be living in a far different, and more troublesome, world.

Which brings us back around to the question of presidential greatness, and gives us a fuller picture of why Obama is inspiring such defeatism among his fans and pessimism among the political class. Presidents govern the country they’ve inherited, and navigate the world as it is. Few faced greater challenges or disorder than Truman, and few acquitted themselves so superbly. The lesson for Obama, his fans, and those who seek to succeed him isn’t that greatness is impossible, but that it only seems that way when you’re looking for it in all the wrong places.

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Bobby Jindal: One Wonk to Rule Them All?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Jindal is obviously smart, experienced, and fluent in policy. He’s also taken on the kind of “happy warrior” persona Republicans should embrace: outrage is not the same thing as anger. And seems to understand the importance of perceived authenticity, so he’s dropped the faux-folksiness he once wore on his sleeve and appears more comfortable in his own skin. But for the revenge of the nerds to be successful, Jindal is going to have to overcome the key challenge posed by how Republicans and Democrats see American electoral politics today.

On the Republican side, few if any doubt Jindal’s obvious intelligence and undeniable competence. But in a wide-open race for the nomination, it will be crucial for each candidate to have their own base within the conservative movement. In this respect, Jindal’s identity as a jack of all trades is less beneficial than it first appears.

Jindal’s defense plan is hawkish, but Marco Rubio long beat him to the punch in terms of establishing his political identity as a learned advocate for a robust American presence in the world. If the party’s hawks are to latch onto any prospective candidate, Rubio is likely to be the one. Most of the party’s potential nominees are hawkish and even Rand Paul has embraced the plain fact that President Obama’s unthinking retrenchment has been a disaster. (So have the president’s Cabinet secretaries; no one wants to take any credit for Obama’s colossal mishandling of world affairs.)

The same is generally true of the other major streams of American conservatism, as I’ve written in the past. But Jindal’s official identification as a hawk does not change the calculus.

The other challenge for Jindal here is how the two parties have reacted to the failure of the Obama presidency. When Obama was a candidate, he was built up by the media and his supporters (but I repeat myself) as a very smart, nuanced thinker. When that turned out not to be true, and when it became clear he also didn’t have the intellectual curiosity necessary to remedy his broad lack of knowledge, the right and the left each reacted differently.

Conservatives responded by turning forcefully against the pretensions of the academic elite. Rule by experts was always under suspicion because of the folly of treating people as science experiments and the repellant culture of eugenics so many of the policies seek to legitimize. But with Obama it became perfectly clear that the experts weren’t actually experts. Liberals just pretended to know what they were talking about, and hid behind credentialism when questioned.

Who is better positioned to take advantage of the discovery that the professor has no clothes, someone like Jindal or someone like, say, Scott Walker, the successful reformist governor without even a college degree? To conservatives, the answer seems clear. They will almost surely end up nominating someone more knowledgeable than the current president, just because the bar is so low. But they would take special pleasure in nominating precisely the kind of politician who would be looked down upon by the Democrats but who would nonetheless run circles around their Democratic opponent intellectually.

Liberals responded to Obama’s failure in a different way: by reverting to the mean of left-liberal politics. Democratic Party politics is traditionally a method of organizing a coalition of interested parties in such a way as to reward them for their support. There is not much of a coherent ideological component outside of the extremely ideological character of the party’s positions on social and cultural issues. Ben Domenech touched on this in last month’s COMMENTARY by noting that:

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax.

Political science has begun to catch up with this reality as well. In a recent paper, Matt Grossman and his coauthor David A. Hopkins studied the way Democrats and Republicans each seek to govern, and explain that Republicans tend to govern according to ideological principles while Democrats govern by rewarding constituencies. They write:

The partisan asymmetry in the governing style of political elites has its roots in the mass public. Party identifiers in the electorate perceive political choices differently: Republicans are more likely to reason ideologically whereas Democrats are more likely to think of politics as a competition among groups over benefits. This difference is durable over time.

The authors add that “Republican politicians and interest groups thus represent both their partisan base and a wider public majority when they think, speak, and act ideologically, advocating restrictions on government activity in a broad sense. By contrast, Democratic politicians and affiliated interests prefer to stress their advocacy of particular policies that have wider public support and that offer targeted benefits to members of their electoral coalition, placing themselves on the side of social groups favoring government action to ameliorate perceived disadvantages.”

That also helps explain the proliferation of put-upon groups in the constellation of liberal identity politics. If Democrats need more votes, they stoke resentment and create a new category for taxpayer-funded benefits. Their response to the revelation that their experts can’t be trusted, in other words, was to go back to inviting enough voters to raid the treasury to win national elections.

What does that mean for Jindal and the wonks? It means an uphill battle. Republicans believe they nominated a competent managerial technocrat last time around–and lost decisively. And Democrats aren’t particularly interested in intellectual prowess–they simply want to divide and conquer the electorate. Jindal is obviously qualified to be the nation’s chief executive. But it’s lonely out there for a wonk.

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Should University Scholars Face Travel Restrictions?

In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

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In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

The simple fact is that Iran is a far more dangerous place for Iranian-Americans (whom the Tehran regime insists travel on Iranian passports) than people like me who have no family connection to the country. Not everything inside the Islamic Republic went smoothly, but the Iranian archives in my experience were generally more receptive to me than the Carter Library in Atlanta was, when I was researching my recent book which touched upon Carter’s attitudes toward North Korea. In the end, my dissertation ended up sharing Yale’s top prize. Needless to say, ignoring the hand-wringing of Yale administrators was a good choice.

In the 15 years since I submitted my dissertation, the situation of those seeking to conduct research in the world’s hotspots has gotten worse, not only for Yale but almost every other university. The problem isn’t the students, but rather administrators and lawyers. At most universities, there has been administrative mitosis, with deanships, assistant deanships, assistant provostships, multiple registrars, department directors, council coordinators, and various counselors proliferating and subdividing. Each must regulate and expand domains in order to make work. Rather than advance up an academic ladder, alas, too many faculty members end up seeking the far more lucrative administrative track. Add into the noxious mix the lawyers, and dysfunction boils over. Rather than raise a generation of young adults, the university lawyers’ notion of in loco parentis represses individual accountability and responsibility.

Too often, academic research and risk-adverse lawyering are mutually exclusive. I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to participate in the Alexander Hamilton Society, which takes national security and foreign policy thinkers to college campuses and has them talk to students and debate with faculty. (This semester, for example, I’ve been to Stetson University, Washington College, and will be heading to Holy Cross tomorrow and Northwestern next week.) At many campuses, students and faculty say that university administrators and lawyers refuse to fund or, in some cases, even allow research in areas in which there are active State Department warnings.

Here’s the problem: Not only are State Department warnings notoriously broad—they seldom specify districts and cities and instead paint with a broad brush, the equivalent of confusing downtown Detroit with rural Nebraska—but, more to the point, it’s the world’s trouble spots which are the most important to research. Sure, with tongue in cheek, I’d say that if I could do my Ph.D. work all over again, maybe I’d be tempted to study the effect of Club Meds on local economies, but I’d much rather have universities churning out scholars of Iraqi, Iranian, Yemeni, Chinese, Korean, or Venezuelan studies. At some point, universities are going to have to choose which they should prioritize: real academic study or the zero-risk policies that their in-house counsels advise, and by which their in-house counsels’ careers too often were shaped. Perhaps at some point, a student or professor will be hurt or worse in a third-world country. That would be tragic. And their grieving family might even take the university to court for allowing their loved one to travel to a far-off, dangerous land. But until universities stand up and fight for their academic freedom, they are destined to become second-class coffee klatches rather than intellectual engines relevant to contemporary world international studies.

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Is Rubio Not Ready or Just Willing to Think?

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

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South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

The possibility of a Rubio candidacy came up in this context because if the Republican Party were really turning back to its roots as a bulwark of support for national security and away from the isolationist wing led by Senator Rand Paul, then Rubio would appear to be one of the obvious choices as leader. While Graham and his pal Senator John McCain have been the loudest voices on behalf of interventionist policies, no one in the Senate has been as eloquent on the need for a coherent and strong U.S. foreign policy than Rubio.

But while McCain praised Rubio Graham gave his younger colleague the back of his hand in his conversation with Hayes:

I asked Graham about Rubio. Hasn’t he been making many of the arguments you’d be likely to make? Graham wasn’t impressed. “He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him—we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” said Graham. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”

Graham’s problem with Rubio stems from the fact that after joining the bipartisan group backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, Rubio eventually backed away from the legislation once it stalled in the House. While McCain, Graham and the other members of the bipartisan gang of eight that championed the reform package have stuck to their plan, Rubio now says that conservatives who demanded that the border security portion of the bill be done first before any changes in the immigration system — especially the effort to legalize illegal immigrants and/or grant them a path to citizenship — should be implemented.

For Graham, who is being pushed to think about running for president by his friend McCain, this shift by Rubio shows he doesn’t have the right stuff.

Graham is right to note that Rubio hasn’t always looked like a future president in the past two years. While, as McCain notes, his record on foreign policy has been “very impressive,” there have been moments when he looked uncertain and a bit too interested in tagging along with Republican elements who don’t share his views. The beating he took from the party’s hardliners on immigration did take a toll. But Graham is wrong to castigate Rubio for rethinking his stand on the reform bill. If anything, his willingness to react to events and draw conclusions from them rather than doggedly stick to an ideological position that had been mistaken is a sign of maturity, not inexperience.

The surge of illegals over the border in Texas this year showed that rather than fixing the immigration system, the talk of granting illegals a path to citizenship without first securing the border had created a new incentive for people to cross the border. Moreover President Obama’s threats, renewed last night, to act unilaterally to trash the rule of law and legalize illegals shows that this administration can’t be trusted to enforce any immigration law passed by Congress.

By adjusting his position, Rubio opened himself up to charges of being a flip-flopper and abandoning his positions in order to curry favor with conservatives. But in doing so, he also demonstrated an ability to address difficult issues soberly and in a manner that enables him to make decisions based on reality rather than an ideological position. That’s pretty much the opposite of the pattern demonstrated by Barack Obama, that Graham rightly disdains.

Graham’s chances of winning the Republican nomination are virtually non-existent. While he’s part of the GOP mainstream on foreign policy, no one who has spent so much time offending the party’s base is going to be its standard bearer in 2016. By contrast, though Rubio made a lot of enemies because of his immigration stand, as a former Tea Party insurgent, he has a lot better chance of reconciling with the conservative base than Graham.

But what’s really interesting about this discussion is that while earlier in the year it looked as if the GOP presidential field would not have any strong entries that championed a strong foreign policy, now the roster of potential candidates representing that point of view seems to be getting crowded. Potential symbolic candidacies like those of Rep. Peter King and former UN Ambassador John Bolton may be joined by Rubio and Graham as well as Senator Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, both of whom also share many of the views espoused by McCain and other GOP hawks.

Graham’s carping about Rubio notwithstanding, the real news here is that as the isolationist moment in American politics ends, the GOP’s natural leaders on foreign policy are reasserting themselves.

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Rand Paul Wants to Know Why All These Straw Men Are So Mean to Him

Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

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Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

Indeed, interventionists have reason to cheer Paul’s about-face: he will drag anti-interventionists, kicking and screaming if necessary, along with him because there is no more libertarian first-tier GOP candidate than Paul. But for those who have paid attention to Paul over these last few years, it’s actually quite easy to understand why he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt more often, and why, specifically, Paul’s previous opposition to intervention was treated as an ideological marker. It’s because Paul has always chosen to present his views in starkly ideological terms while being thoroughly dishonest, repeatedly and unapologetically, about those with whom he disagrees.

In fairness to Paul, here’s his side of the Syria story from an interview he gave to the Federalist:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

In the same interview, he also explains his support for striking ISIS as a defense not only of American interests but primarily of America itself:

With ISIS, they’re beheading American citizens, they’ve actively said that if they can, and when they can, they’ll come to New York. They’re within, I think a day’s march or a day’s drive of Erbil and the consulate there. I think that they probably would be repelled in Baghdad, but they could be a threat to Baghdad. I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan, and if given a safe haven that they could be a real threat to us at home.

All fair enough, though if anything Paul understates the case for intervention here. But there was an earlier line in his answer that caught my attention. He said: “In general, if you look throughout the Middle East, you’ll find it’s a complicated area with complicated movements on all sides ….” Ah, complexity. Now we’re getting somewhere.

It is complexity that has been absent from the way Paul so often describes his colleagues and ideological opponents. Paul is perhaps the one Republican who can compete with Barack Obama for the obsessive use of straw men. Paul is an intelligent man, but he has written some ostentatiously unintelligent things. Here is how he opens a piece he wrote for National Review Online defending his foreign-policy outlook:

The knives are out for conservatives who dare question unlimited involvement in foreign wars.

In one sentence, Paul deploys the warmongering straw man and displays a petulant sense of victimhood. But it actually gets worse. Here’s the next sentence:

Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable. The Wilsonian ideologues must have democracy worldwide now and damn all obstacles to that utopia. I say sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.

Holy moly, that’s some sandwich-board sloganeering right there, sliding into the redemptive politics of messianic paranoia. If only that were the rare outlier. Unfortunately, it’s not. Even after coming around to the fact that the interventionists are right about ISIS, Paul offers this childish dig at those who were right before he realized it:

There’s no point in taking military action just for the sake of it, something Washington leaders can’t seem to understand.

Yes, Rand Paul wants to take military action against ISIS. Many of his colleagues in the Senate want to do exactly the same thing. But Rand Paul, alone among them, has good reasons for it. Everyone else simply likes to bomb things because of how much they love war. Only Rand Paul has a reasonable justification for the war he and his colleagues want. Even when he agrees with other Republicans, Paul just can’t avoid assuming the worst intentions on the part of his colleagues.

He’s also shown a tendency toward indefensibly credulous thinking. At times, this just shows poor judgment, such as the fact that he apparently still buys into a completely debunked rumor about John McCain and ISIS. Other times, it’s conventional anti-interventionist groupthink about what “neocons” are doing with “your money.”

If Rand Paul has begun opening up his worldview to embrace the complexity of global politics, all the better. It might one day prevent him from sanctimoniously attributing the worst intentions even to those he agrees with while maniacally setting fire to fields of straw men. Until that day arrives, his wounded victim act will remain utterly unconvincing.

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Don’t Call It a Comeback: Interventionism Was Hiding in Plain Sight

A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

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A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

As the New York Times reports, the troops will help with the construction of medical treatment facilities, distribution of aid, and will take the reins in coordinating a regional response. The administration expects to deploy as many as 3,000 to Africa in the effort. Some health experts are calling for an even greater response from the U.S., saying the focus on Liberia is not enough; Sierra Leone and Guinea are also in dire need.

If the crisis worsens, so will disorder, border chaos, and perhaps even a refugee crisis of sorts, not to mention the need to protect all these treatment centers and medical storage facilities. This is not an overnight mission, nor a relatively quiet one like sending forces to help track down African warlords, as we have also been doing.

So that’s one kind of military intervention–to fight a disease epidemic across the ocean. The other major story today was on the administration’s shaky attempts to wrangle support for military intervention in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS.

The plan is to use airpower to hit ISIS from above. But there are a couple of ways this could escalate. First is the possibility that since the U.S. is not coordinating attacks in Syria with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Assad’s forces could target U.S. aircraft. As the AP reported, “The United States would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air defenses if he were to go after American planes launching airstrikes in his country, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.”

Another complication is the fact that no one seems to believe airstrikes alone would be enough to accomplish the mission–though the mission itself isn’t quite clear enough for some of the members of Congress on the fence about the plan. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about mission creep and said success may, in fact, require boots on the ground in Iraq. “My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

We should also not forget that on his recent trip to Estonia attempting to counter Russian aggression, “Obama also announced the US would send more air force units and aircraft to the Baltics, and called Estonia’s Amari air base an ideal location to base those forces.” The U.S. has since repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to protecting NATO allies in the region, but it hasn’t stopped Russia from sending veiled threats it may test that promise.

So to sum up: we’re sending troops to one, and possibly three or more, African countries to deal with Ebola; we’re sending the Air Force to the Baltics, with promises to confront Russia with more troops if need be; and we’re contemplating the possibility of sending troops to Iraq while striking at one, possibly two sides in a three-way Syrian civil war while arming the third side, which may or may not have agreed to a truce with one of the sides we’re bombing.

How is it that the American public can be war-weary and also quite clearly interventionist at the same time? The answer is: piece by piece. Americans are tired, in an abstract way, of “policing” the world and fighting open-ended military campaigns. But the individual issues here scramble that message.

According to Rasmussen, half the country is worried about Ebola. According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, most are concerned about ISIS, and thus by clear majorities support airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. That same Post/ABC poll finds more than 40 percent think Obama has been “too cautious” on countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. That might be because, according to Pew, Americans see Russia as the country’s top looming threat.

In other words, when Americans’ retrenchment instincts clash with real-world crises, their concern for the latter tends to win out. And that’s also why we suddenly see a diverse coalition of hawks, at least on the right. Those who prefer less intervention may be learning from the Obama administration’s bungled retreat from the world stage that there is such a thing as a power vacuum, and nature does indeed abhor it.

A stable world order promoted by American power can in many cases make later military intervention unnecessary. Intervention is sometimes the most rational response from noninterventionists.

And as the Ted Cruz-IDC dustup has shown, Americans tend to be a diverse country full of people who strongly believe the United States has a responsibility to protect various at-risk populations around the globe. Here, for example, is the closing sentence of Ross Douthat’s column on the controversy from Sunday:

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

This is, I find, a strong argument for intervention. It’s also an argument, however unintended, for intervention that never materialized in Darfur, and perhaps the consideration of such in Burma, where the Rohingya Muslims might very well be the target of such a campaign. And it’s an argument for intervention in a broad array of crises. It is, in fact, a neat summation of Samantha Power’s foreign-policy philosophy. Douthat sounds about as much a realist here as John McCain is.

And Douthat’s not wrong about the need to save the besieged Christians of the Middle East! That’s the point. There are times when the United States is treaty-bound to intervene on behalf of allies. And there are times when the United States must intervene out of strategic interest. And there are times when the United States seems obligated to intervene out of sheer moral responsibility.

It all adds up to an active, interventionist American role in the world. And the support for that foreign policy goes on periodic hiatus, but it always returns.

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

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President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

What is truly disturbing about this president is that this not a one-off gaffe. Rather, it is part of a long and disturbing series of remarks by the president and his top aides who, while trying to explain and defend their foreign-policy thinking, have caused a major crisis of confidence in their ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy.

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

The New Yorker, May 2, 2011: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ”

President Obama’s interview with David Remnick, the New Yorker, January 7, 2014: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president’s press conference in the Philippines, April 28, 2014: “My job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it… That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Politico, June 1: “Forget The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind,’ and even President Barack Obama’s own ‘singles … doubles.’ The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ ”

Leading from behind… Getting our paragraph right… Hitting singles and doubles… Not doing “stupid shit”: The more the president and his foreign-policy deep thinkers talk, the bigger a hole they dig for themselves.

Even liberals are scathing in denouncing these risible attempts to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine. As Hillary Clinton says, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Or as Maureen Dowd wrote, “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.”

Little wonder, then, that in a Pew poll conducted even before Obama made his “no strategy” comment, 54 percent of respondents said last week that the president isn’t “tough enough” on foreign policy. You can bet that’s a view shared by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-un, and other key American adversaries.

That the president is so ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct is all the more puzzling in that he is supposedly a great orator–at least he won the White House (and a Nobel Peace Prize, lest we forget) based largely on the power of his inspirational words. But at the end of the day there is a limit to how much any orator, no matter how gifted, can say to defend the indefensible or explain the inexplicable. We have now reached that point and beyond. It is high time for Obama to stop talking and start acting. At this point the only thing that can reverse the crippling decline of American credibility is tough, unexpected action–say bombing the Iranian nuclear complex if talks fall through, or mounting an all-out campaign to destroy ISIS, or sending military aid to Ukraine and positioning U.S. troops in the Baltic republics.

You may well observe that these are all military actions. Am I suggesting that Obama become a militarist–a warmonger of the kind he plainly despises? Not at all. Not one of these policy options will send American ground troops into combat. All can be executed with a limited degree of risk without becoming “another Iraq,” the bogeyman that the president most wants to avoid.

And if Obama had acted tougher to begin with–if, for example, he had done more to aid the Syrian opposition or to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–such drastic actions would not now be necessary. But American credibility has sunk so low that it is now crucially important to show that there is more to our foreign policy than empty verbiage from the White House–especially when the more of that verbiage that we hear, the less confidence the world has that we know what we’re doing.

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Has Rand Paul’s Moment Passed?

This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

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This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

Paul scored a public relations coup by getting NBC to send a camera crew and reporter to Guatemala to observe him performing free eye surgeries. This kind of publicity is priceless as was the opportunity to draw attention to the senator’s grandstanding on the border crisis while in Central America. He also got the chance to lambaste the government’s sending of heavy weaponry to local police departments that was highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the headline of the segment was his boast that the American public now agrees more with him about foreign policy than mainstream Republicans or even Democrats like Hillary Clinton who rightly say that what’s happening in Iraq is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria before groups like ISIS had the chance to get going:

I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am, and that those– people, like Hillary Clinton, who, she fought her own war, Hillary’s War, you know, people are gonna find that, and I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, “You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.

In other words, Paul believes that Americans are so war weary from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are incapable of drawing conclusions from recent events. He’s not alone in thinking that. As Chris Cillizza noted in the Washington Post, a raft of polls taken earlier in the year all support the notion that Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy and are opposed to any further involvement in Middle East conflicts, like the potential wars that a “hawk” like Clinton might get the U.S. into.

Cillizza notes that these attitudes are far less popular among Democrats than Republicans, who, on the whole, remain faithful to their party’s traditional posture that deplores a more “narrow role in world affairs.” But, as Cillizza says, just because the GOP has been the standard bearer for a strong America in the recent past and Democrats the party of retreat, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

But, as we have noted here before, Paul’s problem is that the Obama administration’s disastrous mistakes abroad have made it far less safe to assume that fears about terrorism and the decline of U.S. influence will no longer dictate attitudes about foreign affairs. While Clinton will, at least in theory, stand to benefit from being seen as someone who can implement a rational course correction from Obama’s path (so long as, that is, voters forget that she was his secretary of state for four years), Paul is actually offering an even more extreme version of Obama’s foreign-policy vision that has left the world a chaotic mess.

The crises in the Middle East in which Obama’s follies have played a not insignificant role in exacerbating conflicts in Gaza and Iraq and with the Russian assault on Ukraine proceeding may be just the start. Barring an unlikely complete transformation of the Obama administration over the course of the next two years, the odds are that America’s foreign-policy woes will grow rather than recede. That will make it harder to sell Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the country, on Paul’s brand of isolationism. The unique moment in history in which an opening for a Republican who was actually to the left of Obama on foreign affairs may have already come to an end.

Nor, as I wrote here last week when discussing Paul’s efforts to present himself as a friend of Israel despite opposing aid to the embattled Jewish state, do polls give Republicans much reason to believe that there will be, as the senator says, a surge of young Democratic voters coming over to their side if Paul is the GOP candidate.

But mainstream Republicans who have observed the way the murder of James Foley and the general feeling of crisis have affected the public mood should not be too confident about Paul’s inability to win the nomination in 2016. As his clever stage management of the trip to Guatemala as well as past coups such as his drone filibuster in 2013 proved, the Kentucky senator is a formidable politician. His willingness to reach out to groups that have little reason to back him such as blacks, Hispanics, and supporters of Israel does more than show his ambition to expand the base of extremist libertarians. It illustrates a political vision that seeks to establish him as a genuine front-runner and plausible option for president.

It is far too early to project how this will play out in 2016. But the point here is that Paul’s ability to generate positive press from even the liberal mainstream media just at the moment when his views about the world are being discredited by events ought to scare his potential opponents. The follies of the Obama presidency may make it safe for conservatives to espouse their traditional support for a strong foreign policy in 2016 in a way that was harder to do in 2012. Yet anyone in the GOP who underestimates Rand Paul’s sheer political talent will be making a big mistake.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

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Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier today, the president’s reactions to what even Chuck Hagel, his less-than-brilliant secretary of defense, has rightly called a world that is “exploding all over” by blaming it all on forces that he is powerless to control. As Pete correctly pointed out, no one is arguing that the president of the United States is all-powerful and has the capacity to fix everything in the world that is out of order. But the problem is not so much the steep odds against which the administration is currently struggling, as its utter incapacity to look honestly at the mistakes it has made in the past five and half years and to come to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to change course in order to avoid catastrophes.

As has been pointed out several times here at COMMENTARY in the last month and is again highlighted by Diehl in his column, Obama’s efforts to absolve himself of all responsibility for the collapse in Iraq is completely disingenuous. The man who spent the last few years bragging about how he “ended the war in Iraq” now professes to have no responsibility for the fact that the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from the conflict.

Nor is he willing to second guess his dithering over intervention in Syria. The administration spent the last week pushing back hard against Hillary Clinton’s correct, if transparently insincere, criticisms of the administration in which she served, for having stood by and watched helplessly there instead of taking the limited actions that might well have prevented much of that country — and much of Iraq — from falling into the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The same lack of honesty characterizes the administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two topics that Diehl chose not to highlight in his piece.

Obama wasted much of his first term pointlessly quarreling with Israel’s government and then resumed that feud this year after an intermission for a re-election year Jewish charm offensive. This distancing from Israel and the reckless pursuit of an agreement when none was possible helped set up this summer’s fighting. The result is not only an alliance that is at its low point since the presidency of the elder George Bush but a situation in which the U.S. now finds itself pushing the Israelis to make concessions to Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, a state of affairs that guarantees more fighting in the future and a further diminishment of U.S. interests in the region.

On Iran, Obama wasted years on feckless engagement efforts before finally accepting the need for tough sanctions on that nation to stop its nuclear threat. But the president tossed the advantage he worked so hard to build by foolishly pursuing détente with Tehran and loosening sanctions just at the moment when the Iranians looked to be in trouble.

On both the Palestinian and the Iranian front, an improvement in the current grim prospects for U.S. strategy is not impossible. But, as with the situation in Iraq, it will require the kind of grim soul-searching that, as Diehl points out, George W. Bush underwent in 2006 before changing both strategy and personnel in order to pursue the surge that changed the course of the Iraq War. Sadly, Obama threw away the victory he inherited from Bush. If he is to recover in this final two years in office the way Bush did, it will require the same sort of honesty and introspection.

But, unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the qualities that are absent from this otherwise brilliant politician. Obama is a great campaigner — a talent that is still on display every time he takes to the road to blame Republicans for the problems he created — and is still personally liked by much of the electorate (even if his charms are largely lost on conservative critics such as myself). But he seems incapable of ever admitting error, especially on big issues. At the heart of this problem is a self-regard and a contempt for critics that is so great that it renders him incapable of focusing his otherwise formidable intellect on the shortcomings in his own thinking or challenging the premises on which he has based his policies.

Saying you’re wrong is not easy for any of us and has to be especially hard for a man who has been celebrated as a groundbreaking transformational figure in our history. But that is exactly what is required if the exploding world that Obama has helped set in motion is to be kept from careening even further out of control before his presidency ends. The president may think he’s just having an unlucky streak that he can’t do a thing about. While it is true that America’s options are now limited (largely due to his mistakes) in Syria and Iraq, there is plenty he can do to prevent things from getting worse there. It is also largely up to him whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon or Hamas is able to launch yet another war in the near future rather than being isolated. But in order to do the right things on these fronts, he will have to first admit that his previous decisions were wrong. Until he shed the hubris that prevents him from doing so, it will be impossible.

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Obama Still Feeling Sorry for Himself

Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

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Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

About this answer, I’d say several things, starting with this one: When he ran for president, he spoke as if America did control everything in the world and therefore that everything that went wrong in the world was the fault of his predecessor. In other words, Mr. Obama spoke in exactly the terms he now complains his critics do. Having been humiliated by events, President Obama is now telling us that the world is a mighty complicated place – who knew? — and American power is so darn limited. In other words: Don’t blame me. I’m only the president. What on earth can I do?

Second, it wasn’t Mr. Obama’s critics, but Mr. Obama himself, who set the soaring expectations of what would be achieved if he were elected president. It is Mr. Obama, not others, who claimed his candidacy would “ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest.” (Just in case the point was lost on us, Mr. Obama ended by saying, “Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.”)

But that’s not all.

Mr. Obama spoke about how his presidency would “heal the planet” and stop the rise of the oceans. He would usher in unprecedentedly good relations with the world, including the Arab and Islamic world. The president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. There would be extraordinary strides taken toward peace between Israel and Palestinians. Relations with Russia would be “reset.” He’d successfully pivot to Asia. America would work cooperatively with China. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would end responsibly. The tide of war would recede. He would usher in an era of “smart diplomacy.” Apparently Mr. Obama has forgotten he said all this. We’ll do him the favor of reminding him.

Mr. Obama, in his statement during the press conference earlier this month, is also employing a favorite device of his: creating straw men as a way to discredit serious criticisms of him. No one I know assumes the United States is omnipotent. As a friend of mine put it, he’s content to hold the president to a much more pedestrian standard: has the actions Obama taken and, more importantly, the actions he has not taken, made the challenges he faced worse or better?  By that very modest standard, he told me, Mr. Obama has utterly failed.

“I certainly do not think President Obama is responsible for all of the world crises that have taken place during his time in office,” my former White House colleague William C. Inboden, told the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “But he is responsible for actions and attitudes he took that have contributed to some of those crises — and he is also responsible for how he responds, or fails to respond.”

Just so.

The president is desperately trying to escape blame for his failures. But those days are long gone. I would hope that someone in the president’s inner circle, who has standing in his life, would urge him to at least conduct himself in a manner that doesn’t come across as petulant, thin-skinned, and undignified. But that appears to be asking too much of Mr. Obama. He is not emotionally equipped to handle failure with even minimal grace.

His presidency is going down; and he’s determined to look small-minded and bad-tempered in the process.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy Indicted by His Own Team

One sign of the disrepair of Obama’s foreign policy is the admissions and/or criticism being leveled at it not from Republicans but from those who have served in the highest ranks of the Obama administration.

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One sign of the disrepair of Obama’s foreign policy is the admissions and/or criticism being leveled at it not from Republicans but from those who have served in the highest ranks of the Obama administration.

Take President Obama’s current secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, who admitted yesterday that “the world is exploding all over.” Those comments shouldn’t be confused with the ones made by Mr. Obama’s former defense secretary, Robert Gates, who earlier this year said this: “With all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, the perception has grown increasingly around the world that the U.S. is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades. I believe Russia and China, among others, see that void and are moving to see what advantage they can take of it.” Secretary Gates’s comments, in turn, shouldn’t be confused with those made by the president’s former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who a few days ago, in criticizing the president’s self-described “We don’t do stupid sh*t” doctrine, said this: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

The problem for Mr. Obama is that these statements are virtually self-evident. The president can be angry that three of his current and former Cabinet secretaries publicly said what they did. But it’s impossible to deny the merits of their critiques. Only someone living in a world of make-believe would say, for example, that “the tide of war is receding” or that “there have been a number of situations in which you’ve seen this administration intervene in a meaningful way that has . . . substantially improved the — you know, the tranquility of the — of the global community.”  It’s little wonder, then, that the president’s approval rating on foreign policy is now approaching sub-freezing temperatures (33 percent in the most recent McClatchy-Marist poll).

The foreign-policy failures of Mr. Obama are obvious and everywhere. We’re rapidly approaching the point where only the most slavish and obsequious Obama supporters–the Valerie Jarretts, the David Axelrods, and the David Plouffes of the world–can deny what is unfolding before our eyes. In doing so, they prove not their loyalty to Mr. Obama, but their blindness to reality. They aren’t serving the president; they’re disfiguring the truth.

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Hug it Out? Hillary Shows Weakness

If Hillary Clinton runs for president—as she almost certainly will—the former secretary of state is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But the sense of inevitability about her candidacy took a hit yesterday when she sought to back away from the quarrel she picked over the weekend with President Obama.

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If Hillary Clinton runs for president—as she almost certainly will—the former secretary of state is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But the sense of inevitability about her candidacy took a hit yesterday when she sought to back away from the quarrel she picked over the weekend with President Obama.

As I wrote on Monday, Clinton threw down the gauntlet to the president on foreign policy in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. No one doubted that she would at some point revert to the more centrist views on the world that contrasted with those of Obama during their 2008 primary battle. But Clinton’s willingness to judge the president’s decisions harshly seemed to mark a turning point in their complicated relationship. When she rightly damned Obama’s Syria policy as a “failure” that led directly to the current ISIS catastrophe in Iraq, that demonstrated her belief that she needed to distance herself from an increasingly unpopular incumbent heading into 2016.

Given the chaos that has erupted across the globe on the president’s watch, more distance from him would make sense for a Democrat who may not want the voters to think they are casting a ballot for a third term for Obama in 2016. But once the White House starting to push back strongly against her criticism and some in the liberal base of the party began to seethe about her flipping back to a “neoconservative” line about Iraq and in support of Israel, Clinton blinked.

Rather than stick to her guns and dare the left to try and oppose her, Clinton was quick to try and patch up the quarrel with the White House, calling the president and reportedly suggesting that the pair “hug it out” when they each other at a Martha’s Vineyard soiree they are both attending this week.

Maintaining some kind of détente with a sitting president who is the unchallenged leader of the Democrats and the idol of its base makes sense. But there was something craven in the unseemly speed with which Clinton sought to diffuse the controversy. Try as her team of media spinners might, there’s no disguising the fact that her attempt to cut straight to general-election campaign tactics without first having to curtsy the left-wing base of the Democrats isn’t going over very well.

There may be no credible Democratic alternatives currently willing to put their names up in opposition to Clinton right now. Whether they love the Clintons or not, most Democrats have bought into her compelling narrative about being the first female president as the best way to hold onto the White House. The Clintons’ ability to raise money and play hardball politics has also intimidated potential candidates into staying out of the race. But, as I also noted yesterday, that won’t stop liberal outliers like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders from mounting symbolic ideological protest candidacies that could prove troublesome even if no one on the left thinks he should be president.

But the Hillary broadside, followed by her quick retreat, has reminded many in her party that she may not be the political colossus that her admirers in the mainstream press insist she has become.

Like her 2008 candidacy, Clinton’s 2016 “inevitability” is based on the idea that she is so strong that no one other than a marginal figure like Sanders would dare oppose her. But liberals are starting to recall that while Barack Obama’s personal political magic was the main cause of her downfall in 2008, it was only made possible by the fact that most Democrats disliked her centrist foreign policy views.

While we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time Clinton seeks to create more daylight between herself and the man who was her boss for four years, her decision to once again play the person with adult foreign-policy views is bound to foment anger on the left. That means that it might be a mistake to think that Sanders is the only Democrat who believes a leftist challenge to Clinton makes sense. The more people that think about that, the more likely it will be that someone may step forward who could hurt her more than an avowed socialist. Clinton hopes this kerfuffle will only be a blip on the radar in her inevitable long march to the Democratic nomination and the presidency. But it might also be the moment when the 2008 dynamic that sunk her starts to kick in again even without an Obama to take the former first lady down.

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Why Wasn’t Obama Better Informed?

That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

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That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

The big thing that struck me was the president’s habit of blaming others for the world’s problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” he said, and he blamed “the rise of the Republican far fight,” “gerrymandering, the Balkanization of the news media and uncontrolled money in politics.” These are all real factors but it’s striking the extent to which Obama won’t take any responsibility for aggravating the partisan divide and for not doing more to reach out to Republicans.

Next he blamed Iraqis for the problems the country has faced since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. “The fact is, said the president, in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not ‘squandered an opportunity’ to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.” True, but this disaster was entirely foreseeable; in fact it was foreseen by many of us who warned that absent U.S. troops, Iraq would not be able to function. Of course Iraqis deserve primary responsibility for their own woes, but it is striking the extent to which Obama won’t acknowledge how his mistake (in not trying harder to keep U.S. troops there) contributed to the current disaster.

He took a similar line regarding Syria, disparaging the Free Syrian Army which he has refused to help: “With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’ ”

Someone in the 18th century could well have described America’s own independence fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and pooh-poohed the idea that they could stand against the “well-armed” British state. Yet they manage to defeat the British Empire with copious French arms, French training, and French naval power. In Syria we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army could have done if we had offered robust support from the beginning of the rebellion, as Hillary Clinton says she advocated, but it’s pretty disingenuous for Obama to blame these fighters for not having “as much capacity as you would hope” when we have failed to give them the capacity they desire.

The only personal responsibility Obama seemed to take was for the mess in Libya, although even here he insisted on sharing blame with our European allies: “I think,” he said, “we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” meaning if you’re going to topple Gaddafi. Yet curiously enough Obama never explained why he made this elementary mistake, which should have been obvious after the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not as if there was any secret about the possibility of post-Gaddafi disintegration in Libya or the need to send trainers and peacekeeping forces to avert such a disaster. I, for one, wrote regularly on this theme in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times not to mention in COMMENTARY. And I wasn’t alone. My boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, issued a similar warning in the Financial Times. You might think the president might have noticed one of these articles. Even if he hadn’t, his own advisers and intelligence experts should have been issuing similar warnings to him–if they didn’t, then they were guilty of gross negligence.

So why, one wonders, did Obama disregard these warnings not only in 2011 but in subsequent years even as Libya’s problems grew more and more severe? It’s nice that in one case at least the president is taking some ownership for a colossal error, but what’s amazing is that he’s still not fixing it. Instead he’s talking like a dispassionate analyst rather than as the commander in chief who has the capabilities of the world’s most powerful country at his command.

It is the president’s curious passivity, I believe, which accounts for the rapid disintegration of public confidence in his presidency and in particular in his foreign policy. Americans may not want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they want a strong, decisive president. That is certainly not the image Obama is projecting.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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The Anti-Rand Paul GOP Primary

The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

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The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

That’s the upshot of a pair of dueling op-ed articles published this week in which Texas Governor Rick Perry and Paul laid out their respective positions on foreign policy. Perry pulled no punches in an article published in the Washington Post last Friday as he labeled Paul an “isolationist.” Perry rightly pointed out that the positions Paul advocates would weaken America’s defense and standing around the world even more than President Obama’s disastrous policies, especially as a terrorist threat becomes more pronounced in the Middle East.

Paul argued in a response published yesterday in Politico that he was a realist, not an isolationist. But he gave away the game by claiming the difference between them was about his unwillingness to order Americans into Iraq, a signal that he intends to stick to a stance in which the use of U.S. power, as well as its exercise of influence, would be shelved in a Paul presidency.

Paul’s advantage here is that he is the unchallenged spokesman for the growing isolationist spirit within the GOP and the nation. He has inherited his father’s extreme libertarian base and expanded with a slick appeal rooted in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan war weariness. That gives him a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters and accounts for the fact that early polls show him with a slim plurality in a large field of potential candidates.

But it doesn’t guarantee Paul the nomination. To the contrary, though Paul is a formidable contender, there’s no reason to believe that the party that has championed strong defense and foreign policies for generations is morphing into the sort of organization where an extremist like Ron Paul, or even his son, who espouse foreign-policy views that are arguably to the left of Obama, speaks for the majority.

But Paul could succeed if the candidates who espouse mainstream GOP views on foreign policy siphon support from each other and allow him to slip through to victory. That’s why the fiercest fight in the upcoming campaign will not be between Paul and those who disagree with him but in the virtual primary as Republican foreign-policy hawks seek to claim the mantle as the anti-Paul candidate.

This will be especially important because although most voters will always be more concerned about the economy and domestic issues, the differences between the candidates on most of the other issues will be minimal. As things stack up now, other than immigration reform, foreign policy may be the only point on which there are significant differences among the Republicans.

Who will be competing in the anti-Paul primary?

The first name that comes to mind is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor’s decision to remind voters of his opposition to gay marriage made it clear that he’s still interested in running for president despite his ongoing Bridgegate troubles. And he fired a shot across Paul’s bow last year on the question of intelligence gathering that indicated a willingness to stake out ground to the libertarian’s right on defense policy. But Christie is still regarded by many in the grass roots as a moderate who will have problems drawing support from a party that has shifted to the right. More to the point, his expertise on foreign affairs appears to be minimal. While no one should underestimate Christie in a fight, this is not a man who is likely to gain any advantages by speaking about non-domestic or economic issues.

The other principal contender for the title of anti-Paul is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio has spent the last year giving speeches on foreign affairs and has the chops to make a strong case for himself as the most able spokesman of his generation for a strong American foreign policy. Based on his statements, Rubio is a clear choice to be the leading advocate for a strong America in his generation. But the jury is still out on whether Rubio can overcome a poor 2013 in which conservatives attacked him on immigration and Paul and Ted Cruz won the affection of the Tea Party (a group that once regarded him as a favorite).

There are others who would like use foreign policy to emerge from the pack of GOP candidates. Outliers like former ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King want to run on foreign policy but neither seems capable anything more than a symbolic candidacy. 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum has the expertise learned during years in the Senate and would give Paul a run for his money by articulating the case for stopping Iran and not allowing Islamists or the Russians to run the U.S. out of the Middle East. But while it would be foolish to underestimate Santorum (as I and just about everyone else did in 2012), he still looks right now to be a second-tier candidate until the contrary is proven.

There is also the possibility that someone else, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, will emerge as a rival to Paul. But Walker must first win reelection and then must articulate some strong positions on foreign policy, something that so far he has not done.

It is into that confusing array of contenders that Perry is seeking to inject himself. Perry’s disastrous 2012 run would have seemed to eliminate him from future consideration but after his very good week showing up Barack Obama on illegal immigration, the Texas governor seems to be a much more serious contender now than he did only a few weeks ago.

Perry doesn’t know as much about foreign policy as Rubio, Santorum, Bolton, or King and anyone who remembers his debate performances the last time around must regard his 2016 hopes as a long shot at best. But in contrast to his late start last time around, Perry is going in hard this time and seems better prepared. Moreover, by seeking to establish himself as the heir to the Reagan wing of the GOP (as opposed to Paul’s seeming effort to channel the spirit of Robert A. Taft, the isolationist champion of the 1940s), Perry has correctly targeted an issue that could give him a leg up in a battle that is only just starting.

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America: the Popular Hegemon

There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

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There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

Those numbers are all the more impressive when you compare the standing of America’s rivals. Russia’s negative ratings have spiked–now 43 percent of those surveyed view Putinland unfavorably while 34 percent have a positive view. As for China–whose diplomatic offensive at American expense has often been noted–it outscores the U.S. in popularity in only one region: the Middle East. Everywhere else–Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America–the U.S. is more popular.

When asked which country is their top ally, respondents in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam all answered the “U.S.” Only respondents in Malaysia and Pakistan described China as their top ally and the U.S. as their top threat. In Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China was described as the top threat. (Indonesians seem confused–they named the U.S. as both the top ally and the top threat.)

Even more interesting is the fact that large majorities in all of China’s neighbors–and even in China itself–are worried that “territorial disputes between China and neighboring states could lead to a military conflict.” The survey indicates that more than 90 percent of those surveyed in the Philippines are worried as are more than 80 percent of those surveyed in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in China itself more than 60 percent of those surveyed are worried about war.

The implication is clear: the U.S. still has a lot of capital in the world while China is rapidly dissipating whatever goodwill it might once have enjoyed with its aggressive and bombastic behavior. Obviously there is a lot more to foreign policy than popularity–it would be nice to be respected, not just liked–but nevertheless the survey does show an important and often under-appreciated source of American strength: namely the fact that most people around the world do not view us as a threat, no matter how powerful we may be, even when American behavior (e.g., on surveillance and drones) comes in for so much criticism. We are the benevolent superpower, the popular hegemon–not just in our own minds but in the minds of most other people around the world.

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The Obama Presidency Unravels

The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

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The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

Another poll–this one from the Gallup organization–finds that in his sixth year of office, the level of confidence in Mr. Obama’s presidency is 29 percent. That’s lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors.

But the president’s problem isn’t polling data; it’s objective conditions. While recent job reports have been somewhat encouraging, the deeper trends of the economy remain quite troubling. In the first quarter of this year, for example, the economy contracted by nearly 3 percent (the largest contraction in a non-recession in more than 40 years). Illegal immigrants are surging across the border, with more than 52,000 unaccompanied children detained since October.

The Supreme Court just handed the president a series of battering setbacks. “This has been an awful ten days,” the liberal but independent-minded law professor Jonathan Turley said. “[The Obama administration was] previously found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment and privacy. Then they were found to be in violation of the separation of powers. And now they have been found to be in violation of the First Amendment and the religion clauses. I mean, you just don’t want to get out of bed after a week like that.”

This all came after IRS Commissioner John Koskinen not only failed to contain the damage from the growing IRS scandal; he made things worse. Even prominent Democrats conceded Mr. Koskinen’s hearings on Capitol Hill were disastrous. An overwhelming majority of Americans (76 percent) believe the IRS deliberately destroyed emails; nearly as many (74 percent) want Congress to continue to investigate the scandal. The IRS scandal shouldn’t be confused with the scandal plaguing the VA, which I’ve written about elsewhere. And the president’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is, and is widely considered to be, a failure.

Let’s now shift our focus to events overseas.

The president whose foreign-policy doctrine is “we don’t do stupid s***” looks to have done plenty of it. America is now essentially a bystander while the richest and arguably most dangerous terrorist organization in the world is establishing control over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq itself is breaking apart, thanks in good measure to Mr. Obama’s complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Syria is being consumed by a devastating civil war. (Mr. Obama, having previously mocked those who several years ago wanted to support opposition forces in Syria, is now doing just that, though by now the aid may be too little too late.) Jordan, having absorbed some 600,000 refugees from Syria, fears destabilization. The Egyptian government is conducting a brutal crackdown. Iran and Russia are extending their influence in the region. The Obama administration’s second-term effort to produce a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (within nine months!) was folly from the start. The situation is actually getting worse, with violent clashes escalating. Our allies in the Middle East are not only unnerved; they have given up confidence that the president is at all reliable.

But let’s not stop there. The situation in Afghanistan is worsening. Libya, rapidly deteriorating, is becoming a terrorist haven. In Asia, according to the New York Times, “China and its growing military are mounting a serious challenge to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies.” Violence is resurging in Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin warning earlier this week that he reserves the right to use force to defend Russian-speaking citizens there, an argument he used before he annexed Crimea. (The Obama administration has refused Ukraine’s request for military aid and intelligence to defend itself. We have, however, supplied the Ukrainian armed forces with ready-to-eat meals, in case they get hungry battling the Russian military.)

The president has varying degrees of complicity in what has gone wrong in the world. In some cases he bears considerable responsibility; in other cases not. But it was Mr. Obama, not his critics, who pledged to “remake the world” and to “heal the planet”; who promised to usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world that would “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.” It’s certainly reasonable to hold the president accountable to the standards he set and to the promises he made. As Obama himself said in the 2008 campaign, “words mean something.”

All of this presents a rather fascinating psychological case study. In the face of challenges and failure, some of us get better and some of us get worse. In this instance, the president’s worst tendencies are being amplified.

Among other things, Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly petty and petulant. In recent days he’s complained that Republicans “don’t do anything except block me. And call me names.” He’s taken to deriding the Speaker of the House by saying, “So sue me.” Instead of self-reflection, then, we are getting self-pity.

The president also appears to be growing more insular and isolated, exasperated that his greatness isn’t fully recognized by the rest of us. He’s increasingly disappointed that this nation and the world don’t conform to his wishes and ways. Frustrated by our constitutional system of checks and balances, Mr. Obama, the good progressive that he is, has decided he’ll simply ignore them. He wants what he wants.

The unraveling of his presidency is something Mr. Obama is having a great deal of difficulty processing. We have as president a man who is dogmatic, arrogant, vexed, increasingly embittered and feeling under siege.

This won’t end well.

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Rand Paul, the GOP’s Anti-Reagan

In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

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In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

There have been differences for sure–most notably Ronald Reagan’s challenge of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente, with Reagan embracing the roll-back of the Soviet empire–but they have all been differences among internationalists. Mr. Gerson argues that the rise of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul represents an effort by non-interventionists to remake the core national-security doctrine of the GOP. Gerson quotes George Mason Professor Colin Deuck, who says of Paul’s approach: “This is not just a rejection of Bush 43. It goes way beyond Reagan versus Nixon. It is an attempt to undo the Eisenhower administration, which locked Republicans into an internationalist stance.”

Mr. Gerson highlights Senator Paul’s positions on various national-security issues:

The talented, ambitious Republican senator, with little background in foreign affairs, has proposed defense cuts, opposed the “perpetual war” against terrorism, questioned American troop deployments in Germany and South Korea, and sought to limit presidential authority over the use of force (urging, for example, the congressional deauthorization of the Iraq and Afghan wars)… Paul has systematically opposed the forward deployment of American influence: drone strikes, military engagement, and foreign assistance (which, he argues, encourages “lethargy” and “insolence”). Paul’s “constitutional foreign policy” denies the legal basis of the war on terrorism, would place severe constraints on the executive, and hints at the existence of an oppressive national security state.

The political and policy atmosphere of 2013—conflict fatigue, the Arab’s Spring’s frightening turn, public concerns about drone policy, revelations about NSA spying—could hardly have been more favorable to Rand Paul’s rise. It is particularly revealing what a leader says when he is on top of the world. During his 12-hour, 52-minute drone filibuster, Paul felt enough support and permission to make extraordinary claims about the potential misuse of presidential power. “That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco,” he said, “or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination.”

This was the perfect melding of domestic and foreign policy libertarianism—an assertion that the national security state might not only violate your privacy but also take your life during lunch. It was also a paranoid delusion. Taken as a serious argument, it would mean that the president of the United States can’t be trusted with advanced weaponry.

Senator Paul understands that his libertarian convictions are still out of step with many in the GOP, which is why he’s careful in how much he reveals, careful in the battles he chooses, and why he insists his views are Reaganesque (his latest effort can be found in his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal).

Having worked in the Reagan administration and having read a great deal about Reagan and his presidency, it is risible for Paul to claim his philosophy mirrors Reagan’s. America’s fortieth president, among other things, was not drawn to bizarre conspiracies, which Paul can be. (For example, Paul accused Vice President Cheney of being in favor of the Iraq war because of his ties to Halliburton and warns that the NSA might soon “start using the GPS feature in your phone to track whether or not you go to gun shows.”) Rand Paul’s philosophy is much closer to his father Ron Paul’s than Reagan’s or, for that matter, Eisenhower’s.

Senator Paul, then, does not represent simply a different point on the GOP’s post-World War II foreign-policy continuum. He is a break from that tradition. Whether that is wise or not is open to debate. But Mr. Paul should at least have the courage of his libertarian convictions. Particularly if he decides to run for president in 2016, Paul should level with us about how radically different his foreign policy as president would be from those of the last six Republican presidents.

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How Obama Misread the Public

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

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A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

On the one hand Americans like the idea of letting others sort out their own problems, of pulling back, and focusing on “nation-building at home.” On the other hand Americans don’t like cutting deals with terrorists (to release Bowe Bergdahl), letting other states get invaded with impunity (Ukraine) or seeing a hard-won victory in Iraq unravel following American withdrawal.

What Americans really don’t like is when they perceive a lack of leadership in the Oval Office–when the U.S. does not look strong abroad and when our enemies are on the march. That is the case now.

President Obama is not doing what he’s doing in foreign policy because of the public opinion polls; he’s doing it because he really believes in the benefits of retreat and retrenchment. But no doubt he has been comforted in his decisions by the public opinion surveys which show large public approval of his most dovish actions. In retrospect that public support turns out to be illusory.

So now Obama should take with a grain of salt polls which show that the public opposes further involvement in Iraq. That may be the case but the public also opposes the establishment of terrorist states. Obama should have the courage to do the right thing in Iraq–as President Bush did during the surge which was initially unpopular–regardless of what the polls say today.

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