- - Thursday, May 29, 2014

President Obama announced another foreign-policy plan this week, telling our adversaries when and under what circumstances the United States will use its forces abroad.

That was the message he sent to the world at West Point on Wednesday, laying out a far more narrowly defined, post-Sept. 11 foreign policy, as the U.S. withdraws from the war in Afghanistan.

We keep hearing that Mr. Obama is ending the war in that war-torn nation, but of course, we are doing no such thing. While we are ending our combat role there, the war goes on and will likely widen in the foreseeable future as long as the Taliban thinks it can win power by killing enough of the Afghan population.

Mr. Obama’s address set forth a much more troubling, constrained set of policy rules that the United States will follow from here on out between military interventionism and avoiding “foreign entanglements.”

As he has in other speeches, he set up imaginary straw men to ridicule those who “think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.” They were his critics, he said (certainly with Sen. John McCain in mind), who want to put U.S. “troops into the middle of [Syria’s] increasingly sectarian civil war.” He belittled those who, he added, are calling for “invading every country that harbors terrorist networks.”

His critics, however, are calling for no such thing. They are saying that there are times when, as in Syria, we can use our substantial resources, weapons and other military assistance to deal with terrorist networks who — contrary to Mr. Obama’s claim that he has them “on the run” — have grown much more dangerous than they were before Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. McCain has said in numerous speeches that we must set forth a strategic, muscular set of policies that has the ability to respond when help is needed. Weaponry and air power can be effective alternative to ground forces in some cases — as when Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was bombing innocent civilians to put down the rebellion.

Mr. Obama was justifiably outraged when Mr. Assad dropped poison gas on his country’s civilian population in key cities. That led Secretary of State John F. Kerry on a wild-goose chase, prompted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to start multilateral negotiations to locate and destroy Syria’s poison-gas arsenal.

While the international community was focused on a search for the deadly arsenals, Mr. Assad resumed bombing the Syrian people with impunity. An unknown quantity of poison gas is still hidden in Syria to this day.

Where was the outrage? We heard it only on the floor of the Senate, where Mr. McCain and his colleagues kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of the administration’s refusal to act in the face of Mr. Assad’s war crimes. What is the difference between killing people with poison gas or slaughtering them with conventional bombs?

This week, though, the president was attacking those who think there are times when America is called upon to act to save innocent people. Mr. Obama dismisses these critics as people who think that “working through international institutions … or respecting international law is a sign of weakness.”

From now on, Mr. Obama told our enemies, the United States was going to act alone only on a very narrow range of “core interests” — trade issues, for example. In situations when “crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction, we should not go it alone.”

There may be times, though, when no one else can or will act to help defenseless and vulnerable people threatened by genocide, military invasion or some other unforeseen threats. Publicly declaring binding rules of engagement in each future crisis before it happens is a very foolish and dangerous policy.

Mr. Obama sees nothing wrong in telling the Taliban terrorist leaders when he will begin winding down our role in Afghanistan and when we will pack up and leave. As the deadlines approached, the Taliban, al Qaeda and their accomplices have been encouraged to step up their attacks in Kabul, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Worse, in his policy-setting address, Mr. Obama took his rules of engagement one giant step further, telling U.S. adversaries what we would or wouldn’t do in future crises.

Why needlessly tie America’s hands at this juncture? Our allies are losing confidence in U.S. resolve in the face of growing challenges around the world. Democrats are also privately grumbling about the message the president’s retrenchment sends to friends and foes alike.

Russia has annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula with little more than a soft slap on the wrist. Mr. Obama’s impotent sanctions did not hurt Mr. Putin or his economy. If anything, they have emboldened Moscow and pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, where more government buildings have been seized.

For all his bluff and bluster, Mr. Putin has outmaneuvered Mr. Obama every step of the way in the crisis over Ukraine. He senses Mr. Obama is weak and indecisive, and that has only emboldened him to take bigger risks.

He may talk about “peace” in public, but what he really means is a bigger “piece” of Ukraine and other pieces of the former Soviet Union. His lucrative natural-gas deal with China has made Mr. Obama’s sanctions look like child’s play.

In the Middle East, U.S. diplomacy is a mess. Relations with Saudi Arabia are, well, not so good. Mr. Kerry’s efforts at reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have collapsed. Europe’s confidence in Mr. Obama’s leadership has been shaken by his 5-year failure to get our economy up and running at full throttle.

In foreign policy, weakness begets more weakness, and that’s a bad place for us to be in a very dangerous world.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

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