- - Tuesday, April 12, 2016

As you watch the circus that is the 2016 presidential campaign, which candidate strikes you as having a coherent vision of national security for the post-Obama era? Who has told you what he (or she) will do about the rise of jihadi regimes and groups in the Middle East and well beyond? Who has made clear how the United States should respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Chinese neo-imperialism and Russian revanchism?

In my view, none of them. We have, at most, impressions — less than reliable — regarding the candidates’ inclinations and tendencies. That’s disappointing but not entirely surprising. Voters get what they ask for. Most are not demanding that the candidates connect with them intellectually rather than just emotionally. Most are not asking to see the candidates’ plans to provide for the common defense in this perilous period. Too many seem eager only to have politicians to entertain them. The media feed into that. Too many want politicians to be their Santa Claus. The culture feeds into that.

Of course, all the candidates — even Donald Trump, belatedly — have teams of national security-foreign policy advisers. They meet, they talk, they churn out papers. That’s not the same as agreeing on the best — or, more realistically, least-bad — way to protect Americans against those who want to murder us and bury Western civilization. Look at the campaigns’ websites. You’ll see lots of posturing. What you won’t see is much that is concrete.

I recognize that if you’re President Obama or one of his supporters, you don’t agree that the next president ought to change course. On the contrary, you believe that Americans should stay the course charted by the current administration.

Evidence to support that argument is not abundant. Over the years since Mr. Obama entered the White House, there has been an increasing number of terrorist groups carrying out an increasing number of terrorist attacks in an increasing number of countries resulting in an increasing number of victims. There is no reason to believe that trend line is about to turn down.

In Iran, the supreme leader’s nuclear dream has, at best, been deferred in exchange for a long — and apparently still growing — list of concessions, all of which will enrich and empower theocrats who envision a time when those they call “infidels” and “apostates” will submit to them.

Meanwhile, little has been done to stem the continuing carnage in Syria and the ongoing genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in much of the Muslim world. The mass migration, mostly Muslim, from the Middle East and North Africa is having an impact on Europe that could be permanently transformative.

If the next president decides that America does indeed need to change course, this question will arise: Can America change course? After eight years heading in one direction, inertial forces come into play. Large ships of state rarely make sharp turns.

The next president may not have the tools and capabilities needed to enact significantly different policies. The military may require substantial restructuring and, having been shrunk over recent years, rebuilding. The intelligence community may need authorities it doesn’t at present enjoy. The next president will make political appointments, but career bureaucrats who have risen during Mr. Obama’s tenure may be reluctant agents of change.

As a voter, I’m heartened when I hear candidates say they will “tear up the Iran deal on Day One.” But as a policy analyst, I know that may not be possible or even advisable. At the very least, shouldn’t the new president take the time necessary to attempt to get allies on board? You think that will be quick or easy?

What’s more, bold new approaches require public support. That, too, takes time to nurture — especially after a campaign in which public opinion was catered to rather than shaped. Is there any candidate who strikes you as having the skills to “bring us together”?

So if the next president wants to fix what’s broken he (or she) will have his (or her) work cut out for him (or her). I’d argue that a new national security doctrine will be needed — a broad conceptual framework, a statement of principles that will serve to clarify objectives and outcomes.

On that basis, strategies can be developed and tactics brought into play to facilitate those strategies. There is ample precedent: Monroe, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Bush — all promulgated doctrines aimed at addressing what they saw as consequential national security threats and challenges.

Is there an Obama Doctrine and, if so, what does it prescribe or proscribe? You would think by now we’d know, but those questions remain controversial. There is, “Don’t do stupid stuff” (the original language may have been earthier), which is good advice (that Mr. Obama has not always followed) but hardly rises to the level of a doctrine.

Among those who have pointed this out: Hillary Clinton — much to Mr. Obama’s chagrin. “Great nations,” she told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “need organizing principles and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

What might be her organizing principles — or those of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich? Will whichever candidate prevails in November be persuasive enough to unite a majority of Americans around goals worth achieving, goals that will strengthen America, defend Americans and ensure the survival of what used to be called the Free World? I don’t claim to know. And my guess is that the next occupant of the White House hasn’t figured it out yet, either.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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