President Obama has been taking a lot of heat for acknowledging he doesn’t “have a strategy yet” for dealing with the jihadis butchering Iraqis, Syrians, Christians, Kurds and Yazidis, while in their spare time attempting to weaponize bubonic plague for use against others on their extensive to-kill list.
Perhaps the president deserves at least faint praise for recognizing, albeit reluctantly and belatedly, that the most significant global-security threat of the 21st century requires more serious attention — and a plan.
The Islamic State is only one expression of that threat: Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, a still-growing number of regimes and groups has adopted what British Prime Minister David Cameron last week called “a poisonous political ideology that I believe we will be fighting for years and probably decades.”
My recommendation for Mr. Obama: Go back on vacation. Between rounds of golf (far be it from me to begrudge him that) take along a copy of the soon-to-be-released “America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder” by Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist of The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Stephens begins by observing that “there is a new foreign-policy divide in the United States,” one that cuts “across traditional partisan and ideological divides. It’s no longer a story of (mostly) Republican hawks versus (mostly) Democratic doves.”
Instead, neo-isolationists (the kinder term would be non-interventionists) are squaring off against internationalists. The former believe the United States is “badly overextended in the world and needs to be doing a lot less of everything — both for its own sake and the rest of the world’s good.” The latter “believe in Pax Americana, a world in which the economic, diplomatic, and military might of the United States provides the global buffer between civilization and barbarism.”
Mr. Obama is clearly of the neo-isolationist persuasion. He thinks that America “cannot police or solve every problem across the globe.” Those are not his words: That phrase comes from an op-ed last week by Sen. Rand Paul, a likely Republican presidential contender in 2016.
Mr. Stephens, by contrast, argues that there must be a cop on the global beat and that only one nation is capable of handling the job. Such hoary options as “collective security” and “balance of power” have repeatedly failed. “A world in which the leading liberal-democratic nation does not assume its role as world policeman,” Mr. Stephens writes, “will become a world in which dictatorships contend, or unite, to fill the breach.”
This is exactly what we see happening. The new “global disorder” features the rise of the Islamic State, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s continuing drive to develop nuclear weapons and, beyond the tumultuous Middle East, Russia re-establishing itself as Eurasia’s hegemon and NATO’s nemesis, China bullying its neighbors with impunity, and an already nuclear-armed North Korea imperiling such U.S. allies as South Korea and Japan. The ball bearings in this ticking time bomb: More than 40 non-state Islamic terrorist groups operating in some two dozen countries.
Non-interventionists will counter that Americans have neither the resources nor the will to arrest all the world’s many criminals. However, that’s not necessary. Mr. Stephens proposes a foreign policy mirroring the “broken windows” approach to domestic law enforcement, one based on insights into “the nature of communal order, the way it is maintained.”
That would require rejection of the “Retreat Doctrine” and a return to credible deterrence — the maintenance of military forces so obviously superior that only fools would test them (as fools are inclined to do from time to time). That, in turn, implies not slashing defense spending as Mr. Obama has been doing, not asserting that “the tide of war is receding” even as it laps our shoes, and not imagining that wars — jihads included — invariably end “with no victors and no vanquished.”
Mr. Stephens makes the case for strategically investing in America’s military technological edge. U.S. assets should be deployed for our own protection and that of our allies “on condition that those allies invest significantly in their own defenses.” Currently, most NATO members are not even close.
It is essential that gross violations of “geopolitical norms” — the use of chemicals weapons would be an example — bring painful consequences to the violators. Still, that need not be followed by “open-ended occupations for idealistic ends.” The emphasis should be on “stability and predictability in international affairs.” Mr. Stephens adds: “The Pottery Barn rule is not a theory of international relations the United States should recognize.”
Perhaps most important: Unless and until it is established that the United States is leading and has a strategy to shape the world order — or at least prevent tyrants, totalitarians and supremacists from doing that — “our enemies will be emboldened, and we will have more of them.”
Global leadership should be seen as neither an honor nor a privilege. It is, rather, a terrible responsibility. But if not America, who? There are other decent nations, but they are not strong. There are other strong nations, but they are not decent.
Someday that may change. In the meantime, it is a historic mistake to abandon the Reagan Doctrine of “peace through strength.” Nor should Americans forsake the Truman Doctrine of supporting “free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Like it or not, America — not the United Nations, not the “international community,” not the advent of the 21st century — remains “the last best hope of man on Earth.” That’s the point Mr. Stephens is making. That’s the foundation on which Mr. Obama, in his last years in office, ought to be building his long-overdue national-security strategy.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.