…and his name is E.J. Dionne. Traditionally, Paul has the E.J. beat, but I can’t resist taking a swing at this Dionne column, dated yesterday, which places Barack Obama’s foreign policy–the one he is pursuing this week–in the coveted Goldilocks position on the continuum of history. It’s not too warlike, not too passive–just right!
Over the last decade, Americans’ views on foreign policy have swung sharply from support for intervention to a profound mistrust of any military engagement overseas.
Over the same period, political debates on foreign affairs have been bitter and polarized, defined by the question of whether the invasion of Iraq was a proper use of the nation’s power or a catastrophic mistake.
This is a nice way of saying that Democrats–almost all of them–voted for the Iraq war with their fingers crossed, and then at the first sign of adversity betrayed their own country, heaping one lie on top of another, in order to gain political advantage.
[T]here is a strong case that, after all the gyrations in policy and popular attitudes, we are on the verge of a new politics of foreign policy based on a steadier, more sober and more realistic view of our country’s role in the world and of what it takes to keep the nation safe.
That would be the view that Barack Obama took on Wednesday. When his policies change next week or next month, Dionne will be right there, sweeping up behind the lead elephant (or, rather, donkey) of the Democratic Party.
And it fell to President Obama on Wednesday night to take the first steps toward building a durable consensus that can outlast his presidency.
Interesting idea, but Obama has been one of the most viciously partisan and divisive presidents in American history. When has he ever built a consensus on anything? I don’t think he is likely to start in the sixth year of his presidency.
The paradox is that, while polls show Americans more critical than ever of the president’s handling of foreign affairs, the strategy he outlined toward the Islamic State has the potential of forging a unity of purpose across a wide swath of American opinion.
That is why he chose it, obviously. It is poll tested. Voters want to strike back at ISIL, but they don’t want any Americans hurt in the process. The problem is that this isn’t a viable strategy. You can defeat ISIL, or you can avoid any American casualties. You can’t do both, unless you can actually construct a viable coalition. (More about that in a moment.) So Obama’s supposed “strategy” is just a stall tactic, designed to take political pressure off until after the mid-term elections. Obama knows that it can’t succeed, and he doesn’t mean for it to succeed. “Victory” is a word that he uses only when talking about Republicans.
Obama said he was sending an additional 475 U.S. troops to Iraq “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” But he was again at pains to insist that they would “not get dragged into another ground war.” …
Above all, Obama went out of his way to describe his new effort as a “counterterrorism strategy,” tying it back to the cause that large majorities of Americans embraced after the 9/11 attacks and have never stopped supporting.
Poor E.J.! He wrote this column yesterday, when Obama administration spokesmen (led by Obama himself) were hysterically denying that the kinetic action they intend to take against ISIL is a “war.” Apparently that approach didn’t fare well in the overnight polls, so today they did a head-snapping 180. It’s a war after all. We have always been at war with ISIL!
More generally, Obama is pushing a tough-minded multilateralism. His stress on building “a broad coalition of partners” and the administration’s aggressive courting of allies in both the Middle East and Europe recalls the intense rounds of diplomacy that former Secretary of State James A. Baker III led on behalf of the first President Bush before the successful war to drive Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991.
Ha Ha Ha Ha! Dionne writes for newspapers, but apparently he doesn’t read them. Obama can’t identify a single ally that is joining in his “multilateral” campaign against ISIL. Great Britain and Germany have definitively counted themselves out. This is “tough-minded multilateralism”? A “broad coalition of partners”?
Here, as elsewhere, Dionne is intent on re-writing history. George W. Bush, unlike Barack Obama, did assemble a broad coalition of allies that included 35 nations–a total that Obama cannot even dream of, largely because no one–and I mean no one–trusts him. Not only that, George W. Bush got a unanimous resolution from the United Nations Security Council and a nearly unanimous war resolution, the functional equivalent of a declaration of war, from Congress. Obama will attempt neither. He is a small man, trying–not particularly hard–to fill big shoes.
In the meantime, anti-interventionists — who still loom large in the president’s party and in Republican libertarian quarters — will continue to be wary of any re-escalation of U.S. military engagement. And a bitter election season is hardly an ideal moment for building bipartisanship.
Anti-interventionists “still loom large in the president’s party”? Really? “Still”? What a jokester that E.J. is! Does he seriously not remember that Barack Obama’s only claim to his party’s nomination was that he was the uncompromising, pure, “anti-interventionist”? The one guy who didn’t vote for the Iraq war? And now, there are “still” anti-interventionists among the Democrats? What a shock! Only, I assume E.J. was one until Wednesday.
Nonetheless, circumstances have presented Obama with both an opportunity and an obligation to steer U.S. policy toward a middle course that acknowledges a need for American leadership and the careful use of American power while avoiding commitments that are beyond the country’s capacity to sustain.
Not too hot, not too cold, just right! Of course, Dionne’s formulation is virtually tautological. Obviously there is a need for American leadership, and of course we shouldn’t make commitments that are beyond our capacity to sustain (like Obamacare, for example, but that’s another story). But does that hypothetical middle ground really represent the Obama administration’s foreign policies? Not at all. We had a commitment to Iraq which we were fully capable of sustaining, at very little cost. The war there had been won, and Joe Biden–disingenuously, as always–claimed that victory as one of the Obama administration’s greatest achievements. But Obama threw it all away, withdrawing the last troops from Iraq out of spite, just to spurn what was left of George Bush’s legacy. And that catastrophically stupid decision was one of the key factors that led to the ascendancy of ISIL, and the fix that we are in today.
But E.J. Dionne, naturally, says nothing about that. Being a courtier must be tough: you have to be really dumb, or else pretend to be.