The world needs the U.S. to lead — and not just from behind — according to a report by two influential former senators, who argue that political pressure on the Obama administration from the far left and far right for America to disengage from the world has created a power vacuum that unpredictable and unsavory actors are all too eager to fill.
“An increasingly brazen China, revanchist Russia, volatile North Korea, and ruthless Islamic State collectively underscore the need for more, not less, American leadership abroad,” write former Sens. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat turned independent, in “Why American Leadership Still Matters,” a 40-page report being released Thursday through the American Enterprise Institute.
While the center-right think tank may be known for its hawkish positions, Mr. Kyl, who served from 1993 through 2013, stressed in an interview the need for both parties to come together in understanding America’s vital position in the world.
Despite his former National Journal ranking as the fourth most conservative senator on Capitol Hill, he lamented how biting partisanship increasingly trumps honest debate on foreign policy.
“All too often in recent years, partisanship has been the driving force rather than ideological considerations,” he said, suggesting that the disagreement between isolationists and interventionists on both sides of the aisle could be healthy — if it did not lead so often to partisan smearing of the other side.
“It’s dangerous when foreign policy debate is about hurting the other political side in America rather than focusing together on whoever our foreign policy adversary is,” Mr. Kyl said. “Both parties have done it, although I’d argue the Democrats have done it more.”
He openly criticized President Obama, asserting that “this president would rather withdraw the American presence in the world” and that “his ideology is to get out of the world if you can.”
“People around the world see that as a very dangerous proposition,” Mr. Kyl said. “They’d rather see a U.S. president who’s ready to act — even if they don’t agree with the action.”
However, the former senator also noted that he agrees with Mr. Obama on some points — citing in particular the president’s promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive Pacific Rim trade deal that has drawn angry resistance from labor unions and the far left.
Thursday’s report, reviewing U.S. foreign engagements over the past half-century from Colombia to Vietnam and beyond, calls for a more aggressive projection of American power in all its dimensions, in pursuit of national goals such as the TPP.
Although the report avoids specifics on some stickier issues, such as whether to deploy more troops to the Middle East, it argues that “a strong, bipartisan commitment to global leadership has informed America’s foreign policy since we emerged from World War II.”
Mr. Kyl and Mr. Lieberman say the high cost of U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern and South Asian wars, coupled with a slow recovery from the global economic recession, ushered in an era of political hand-wringing over the “benefits of American global leadership.”
They cite a 2013 Pew Foundation poll that finds a majority of Americans wanting the U.S. to “mind its own business internationally.” They also argue that “elected officials in both the Republican and Democratic political parties seized on this shift in opinion to call for reductions in the defense and diplomatic budgets, an end to trade deals and democracy promotion, and a reevaluation of America’s postwar role as guarantor of international security.”
Such calls are dangerous and irresponsible, Mr. Kyl and Mr. Lieberman said. They point to a host of developments around the world over the past two years to show “just how much is at stake when America pulls back,” including Russia’s seizure of the Crimea, China’s steady military buildup, and the rise of militant jihadi movements such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram.
The authors warn that “global politics abhors a vacuum, and American retrenchment is sure to create one.”