- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dogged critics of President George W. Bush’s foreign policies suddenly have found that managing the world, and radical Islam, is not as easy as it looked from the outside six or more years ago.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, as a senator and ex-senator, was perhaps Mr. Bush’s most punishing reviewer. He said of the Bush administration in 2007: “It is my opinion that this is one of the most arrogant, incompetent administrations I’ve ever seen personally or ever read about — the most arrogant in history.”

At the Council on Foreign Relations in a talk on national security, he said: “I would rate this one the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus — almost every area, I would give it the lowest grade.”

Last week, nearly six years into the Obama administration, Mr. Hagel addressed troops and said, “The world is exploding all over.”

In July, he told a troop gathering, “The Middle East is blowing up.”

Madeleine K. Albright, President Clinton’s secretary of state, gave a series of speeches during Mr. Bush’s two terms characterizing him as the worst foreign policy president ever.

“I, personally, have never seen the world in such a mess,” she told a gathering in 2008.

Last month, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Mrs. Albright said, “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s first secretary of state, was also a fierce Bush critic. Today, she laments the president’s Syria policy as paving the way for the rise of the Islamic State group.

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, took note of Mr. Hagel’s and Mrs. Albright’s current views and said: “The problem with self-described realists is that they were always so unrealistic. They actually believed what America’s enemies told us, and didn’t realize that for so many rogues, diplomacy is just an asymmetric warfare strategy meant to tie America’s hands.”

Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy under Mr. Bush, said: “President Obama and his team came to office believing many things about national security policy that have since been contradicted by events. Our disengagement from the world does not simply ensure that other states with similar interests will step forward to play the roles that we’ve traditionally played, as the disintegration of Syria and Iraq show.”

Mr. Obama today finds himself the brunt of Republican, and sometimes Democratic, attacks on his policies in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Ukraine and other hot spots.

Mr. Bush launched combat operations in two countries in the war on terrorism, but Mr. Obama has boasted about troop withdrawals. “I was elected to end wars, not start ‘em,” he said.

As the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Secretary of State John F. Kerry characterized President Bashar Assad as a leader the U.S. could deal with. Months later, after Mr. Assad’s forces killed thousands of civilians, Mr. Kerry called him a “thug and a murderer.”

The administration was split on the issue of providing arms to the Free Syrian Army to fight both Mr. Assad and Islamic jihadists.

On Iraq, Republicans said Mr. Obama should have negotiated a new status of forces agreement that would have kept a residual U.S. troop contingent in country to train and mentor the Iraqi Security Forces.

After essentially being defeated as al Qaeda in Iraq in 2009, the militant organization rebuilt itself as the Islamic State group, and today controls large sections of Iraq and Syria with brutal force.

Mr. Hagel has labeled the Islamic State a threat to the United States. Still, Mr. Obama’s stated policy is that Iraq must defeat the group, with limited assistance from America.

Mr. Obama’s foreign relations are guided by a principle, some would say slogan, “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

In an interview with The Atlantic, Mrs. Clinton let it be known that she supported arming the Free Syrian Army of anti-Assad rebels. Lack of assistance, she said, created a vacuum that helped spawn the Islamic State, which today controls several Syrian towns.

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Obama has taken heat from other friendly corners.

The National Defense Panel is appointed by the Pentagon and Congress to review the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review. The strategy basically spells out global threats and dictates the size of the armed forces to combat them.

The panel might be expected to be sympathetic to Mr. Obama’s defense posture. It was co-chaired by Mr. Clinton’s defense secretary, William Perry, and included Michelle Fournoy, Mr. Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy.

But the group last month issued a strong rebuke of Mr. Obama’s basic premise for sizing the force, saying it needs to be scrapped and replaced by one that acknowledges all the new global threats to the U.S.

P.J. Crowley, who served as Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman at the State Department, said the criticism of Obama policy underscores a basic fact: “The world is complex and difficult to manage.”

“In our bumper-sticker political culture, there is always a temptation to take complicated issues and offer oversimplified solutions, or suggest that one discreet action would have solved everything,” he said. “You hear that now with respect to Iraq and Syria. If we had just left a residual force in Iraq, [the Islamic State] would never have advanced. Or if we had just bombed Assad in 2011, 2012 or 2013, his government would have collapsed. The reality is different.”

Eric Schultz, deputy White House press secretary, delivered a defense of the president’s foreign policy last week at Martha’s Vineyard, where the president is vacationing.

“We do have sound, fundamental organizing principles that dictate how the president views the role of the United States in the world,” he said. “No. 1, that is confronting any threat to the national security interests of the United States.”

Mr. Schultz said the president believes “military action cannot be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer, doesn’t mean that we have to hit every nail.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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