Writing at Bloomberg View, Eli Lake reports on this week's summit between President Obama and Arab leaders who are getting jumpy over U.S. commitment to deterrence of Iran:
Obama, despite his proclivity for ending "dumb" wars and such, is a big fan of deterrence. In 2014, he committed American power to the defense of the Senkaku Islands, a chain administered by Japan but challenged by China. In a tour of Eastern Europe last year, he assured Estonians that NATO's commitment to their small country's security was "unbreakable," "unwavering" and "eternal." The U.S.-Israel bond? Also unbreakable.
But with Obama, sometimes the rhetoric doesn't match the reality. For example, after withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq, he insisted many times that he was committed Iraq's security. Yet it was not until the Islamic State had taken over Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, that Obama began his air war against the terrorists.
In Syria, after the dictator Bashar al-Assad was confirmed to have used chemical weapons—crossing Obama's "red line"—the White House backed down, settling for a Russian-backed deal to remove Syria's stockpiles. Obama has continued to stay out of the civil war, despite pleading from Arab allies to intervene, and recent evidence that Syria is still conducting chemical attacks on its opposition.
When Russia destabilized Ukraine in 2014 with its badly disguised special-operation forces in Crimea, Obama did not seek to enforce the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. That agreement had committed Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. to safeguard Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for the Kiev government giving up its nuclear weapons.
It's not fully clear to me that Obama has been particularly good at ending "dumb wars," though he was certainly willing to join in one super-dumb action in Libya as well faux-saber-rattle over Syria in a way that arguably made everything worse in the region. Obama's people tried to extend the U.S. stay in Iraq past the deadline negotiated by George W. Bush and wouldja believe we've still got troops in Afghanistan and almost certainly will til the end times.
Reading through Lake's article is a reminder that foreign policy is simultaneously a fast- and slow-moving disaster. Bill Clinton didn't sleepwalk through the post-Cold War era, as some would have it. He bombed more countries than Ronald Reagan and dispatched troops regularly, as if it were a bodily function. George W. Bush's sterling record of failure is everywhere evident except in the halls of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Congress, where the Republican majority seems hell-bent on rolling out what might be called an Ozymandias 2.0 strategy (lose wars in remote desert wastelands, repeat as necessary).
Among the major-party candidates running for president, Rand Paul is the only one who has offered up any sort of alternative to the terrible, awful, and failed SNAFU of the past dozen-plus years (and even he has gone wobbly at various moments). The United States won't help fix all the problems in the world until it realizes that it can't fix all the problems in the world, especially when it comes to fights and struggles that are best dealt with by the countries and governments most affected by those problems. It's well past time for the country to have the sort of serious discussion about foreign policy that will fashion a consensus about what the United States should be doing overseas and militarily in the 21st century. Rather than having a procession of would-be leaders of both parties sniping at the supposed lack of patriotism evinced by anyone who ever dares suggest that the U.S. spend less on defense or not get involved in some fight somewhere.
And if the Arab leaders meeting with President Obama are getting jumpy about the seeds they have sown by inflaming Islamic terrorism, sectarianism, and fundamentalism—not to mention how much hatred they've incited among their own citizens by treating them poorly—they ought to start thinking about how they might spend some of their vast wealth on protecting their own skins. Rather than expecting everyone else in the world (read: the United States) to do it for them.
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