In search of the cavalry

Bill Kristol’s latest piece — “A Superpower Once Lived Here” — is a powerful indictment of President Obama’s ruinous foreign policy and, more importantly, a plea for vigorous, effective opposition.

First, the indictment:

Putin understands Obama’s message. He knows he’s won Crimea. The question is whether he’ll win Ukraine.

He thinks he will. He’s dealing with the Obama administration, after all. He looks at the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, he witnesses the failure to enforce the red line in Syria and the subsequent successes of his friend Assad, he chortles at the relaxation of the sanctions on Iran and the desperate desire to cut a nuclear deal, and he sees Obama’s defense cuts. And he reads the New York Times, where David Sanger reports, “Mr. Obama acknowledges, at least in private, that he is managing an era of American retrenchment.”

So Putin sees retrenchment. Putin sees retreat.

We often compare Obama’s foreign policy to that of Jimmy Carter. As Kristol notes, the comparison does not favor Obama. Both presidents were mugged by reality. But Carter knew he had been mugged and didn’t like it. As for our current president,

It’s been a bit bewildering, even disorienting, to watch Obama get mugged by reality and refuse to press charges. But of course he doesn’t want to press charges. He doesn’t believe in an international system in which the American role is to lead. Former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal was asked by the Financial Times recently about Putin and Obama. He explained: “While the wolf is eating the sheep, there is no shepherd to come to the rescue of the pack. This is where we find ourselves today.”

Indeed it is. In the New York Times, Sanger comments, “History suggests that such eras [of retrenchment]—akin to what the United States went through after the two world wars and Vietnam—often look like weakness to the rest of the world.” Retrenchment looks like weakness because it is weakness. And the consequences of such eras of weakness aren’t happy.

But we can hammer Obama all day and all night; his is basically the foreign policy Americans wanted. And that’s the real concern:

Allies and enemies around the world will read the American situation differently if they think the American collapse of will is bipartisan than they will if they see that it is not. Pro-Western forces around the world may be able to maneuver and to hang on if they receive a clear message that the cavalry is coming to the rescue on January 20, 2017.

Unfortunately, the cavalry consists of a minority wing of one political party. Unfortunately, the American collapse of will has been bipartisan.

To say, though, that Obama has delivered the foreign policy Americans want is not to say that he’s delivering the results Americans expected or want. Jimmy Carter delivered the foreign policy we wanted — a foreign policy, he liked to say, as decent as the American people themselves. But when that foreign became associated with American hostages in Iran and Russian troops in Afghanistan, decent Americans recoiled, as did Carter himself.

Obama isn’t going to recoil from the fruits of his weak policies; indeed, there’s little reason to think he finds most of them bitter. Some Democrats may recoil, but a critical mass sees a strong America as a source of more mischief (if not evil) than Putin and others can inflict, just as Obama does.

So it really is down to Republicans to reconstitute ourselves as the cavalry.

And there is reason for hope. I see today’s Republicans as standing in the shoes of Americans as a whole, circa 1977. We are tempted by a foreign policy of disengagement, but probably still sentient enough to realize when we have been mugged and still American enough not to accept it.

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