SMITH: House Republicans must check Obama

Last chance for U.S. foreign-policy success

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The votes are counted, the president will serve another term, and the Senate continues in Democratic control. With confidence in the separation of powers and bicameralism, Americans have, however, once again entrusted control of the House of Representatives to Republicans.

The intensity of the White House focus on the election campaign crowded out many important national decisions, and not only on the marquee issues of jobs and taxes. The Obama administration punted on foreign policy and human rights, leaving too many issues for after Election Day. Combined with President Obama’s diffident view of America’s role in the world, this was not good news for America or the world.

Kicking the can down the road is not a responsible foreign policy in these challenging, even perilous, times. There are many examples of lapses, but perhaps one jumps out ahead of the others. Delaying investigation and accountability for the attack on our consulate in Benghazi may have served the president’s electoral purposes, but the American people cannot support a way forward without knowing the plain facts.

It is the responsibility of the Republican conference of the House to bring the administration to the action and leadership on foreign policy that the moment requires.

Iran is close to possessing nuclear weapons. A balanced and bipartisan policy must begin by acknowledging the unpleasant truth that the Iranian regime is not governed by the traditional calculations of national interest taught in graduate schools of international relations. Wishing it were not so is not a policy. Iran’s leaders are affected by a messianism that looks beyond war and peace and pays scant attention to the slow effects of sanctions. Mr. Obama must skillfully and resolutely rely on all the different instruments of American national power, be they economic, diplomatic, information, intelligence or military.

Iran has threatened Israel’s existence, so a premise of our Iran policy must be firm support of Israel. Firmness on this point will stabilize, not disrupt, the region.

Speaking to the Muslim world in his 2009 inaugural address, the new president optimistically asked for “a new way forward.” He decried those who would “sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West.” He said, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Are we closer to those goals than we were in 2009?

The naive hopes of the Arab Spring have given way to a predictable reality — control of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood. Other nations in the region are hearing the Brotherhood’s siren call of religious extremism, so American diplomacy must assure that a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt does not move further toward anti-Americanism, radical Islamist politics, persecution of religious minorities or antipathy toward Israel.

The continuing slaughter of Syrians by the dictator Bashar Assad has shocked the world. The stakes are high because Mr. Assad is supported by Iran and because Syria under his rule provides a launching point for terrorism against Israel and other nations. The fundamental question — how to shape America’s response — can no longer be put off. We must prepare today to assist a new government tomorrow.

Many issues divide the United States and China even though our two nations should be natural partners. The right premise for American policy is to be on the side of China’s people, not the Communist Party. The right policy is to support the Chinese people’s hopes. They want to be free to work, move, worship, choose their own leaders, have a clean environment, organize for better working conditions, and have children as they want. There’s always a temptation to underplay the historic American commitment to human rights in favor of tactical gains. To do so would place us on the wrong side.

There are many areas where Republicans and Democrats should work together easily. All agree that a deft American foreign policy can contribute to jobs and economic recovery at home, so it is time for vigorous promotion of a trade and investment agenda. Opening our market to the world’s products has provided a boost to many societies around the world, but American companies and workers still do not compete on a level playing field. Now is the time to assure it.

Another area of bipartisan support should be helping the State Department and the Foreign Service build their capacity to meet the coming challenges. We are going to need more diplomacy, not less, and the challenge will come soon. The State Department was somewhat ill-prepared for the tasks that came its way after Sept. 11, 2001, and its commitments to staff huge embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan have left too many Foreign Service officers exhausted. It’s time to rebuild and professionalize.

Elections and inaugurations always bring out the generous and hopeful character of Americans. While the debates over jobs, taxes and the economy are likely to absorb the media for several months, we must tend to foreign policy, too. Republicans and Democrats both know the world needs American leadership. We took some time off during the campaign. Now’s the time for action.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, global health and human rights, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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