Pull No Foreign Policy Punches in 2016


As_Between_Friends_(Punch_magazine,_13_December_1911,_detail)Conservatives have reason to be optimistic about 2016. The ample supply of viable Republican candidates seems to grow every week, and should they (or at least the more comb-over adorned among them) keep the internecine squabbling short of apoplectic levels, the Republican nominee will enter the general election with the chance to put a fresh face on American leadership.

Opposing them is a Clinton campaign of the mind that generating no news is better than being held to account for anything uttered in the buildup to the primaries. Despite her perfunctory tour of the nation, the USS Hilldog rests in stagnant waters. The most prominent media it can expect for the near future will be the State Department’s monthly email dumps. These should fasten even more barnacles to She-Who-is-Inevitable.

Let us assume that Clinton is in fact just that, at least for the Democratic nomination. She will sell voters the following: inequality rhetoric, a hard-line on immigration, and defense of the Affordable Care Act. In short, she will present herself as their heir to Barack Obama’s coalition, using all the best practices in consultant-based identity politics, and like her predecessor, hers will be a domestic agenda.

We’ve thoroughly documented the many disappointments of her State Department tenure. Her own record will confine Mrs. Clinton’s talking points to euphemism and frivolous accomplishments. When the Administration followed her lead, failure ensued (e.g., Libya). Should Mrs. Clinton draw attention to where she and the President disagreed (Clinton was an early proponent of arming pre-ISIS Syrian rebels), she risks badmouthing his record in front of what will still be his audience. Expect her to minimize any mention of goings-on outside of the United States.

The Republican candidate should step into this void with gusto.

They should (and will) harangue President Obama and his abdication of global leadership, and Mrs. Clinton for her bungling of, well, everything she touched. But they shouldn’t settle for Sean Hannity-style bromides about appeasement. They must make principled, nuanced arguments about why the United States is uniquely suited to lead and its declared enemies entitled to no grievance or ambition at our expense.

They should start by having a conversation about Russia, and give the voters some insight into Mrs. Clinton’s myopia and the true nature of our past rival’s reincarnation. The Obama Administration’s outlook on Russia is a prime example of Hope and Change as a substitute for foreign policy. It’s a mindset in which our President foregoes consideration of history’s lessons as well as plain facts about the person of Vladimir Putin.

Pretend it’s 2009. What do we know about Vladimir Putin? Well, for starters, he was a 16-year veteran of the KGB, an organization he didn’t leave until the death throes of the Soviet Union. Then let’s consider his 2005 Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, in which he said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century,” and consider the implications of his very next words: “As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” Then let’s look at the mockery of the democratic process Putin orchestrated in 2008 to perpetuate his stranglehold of Russian politics. Oh, and he had just invaded Georgia. These examples might suggest a man hungry for power, if not empire.

To be fair, Barack Obama is not the first President to misconceive Mr. Putin. But it would have been nice if President Obama had learned something from his predecessor. Was it necessary to talk up the placatory reset policy? The Obama Administration’s first significant change in our policy toward Russia, in 2009, was to scrap a proposed missile defense system staunchly opposed by Mr. Putin. It was to be built in coordination with the Czech Republic and Poland in anticipation of Iranian intercontinental capabilities. In return for folding their hand early in the game, the Administration received nothing, least of all a reduction in weapons sales to Iran.

In April this year, in a remorseless bit of irony, Russia lifted its 2007 ban on the sale of its advanced S-300 missile defense system to (who else?) Iran.

As late as 2012, President Obama, on the national stage, deprecated Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was a geopolitical threat. The wishful thinking implicit in this flippant sound bite is the perfect encapsulation of this administration’s outlook. In early 2013, Clinton wrote a memo to the President telling him that the reset with Russia was over and done with. Better late than never.

This should not stop the Republican nominee from beating this dead horse into the tundra. Secretary Clinton and President Obama read the tea leaves exactly wrong, and made a substantial pre-emptive concession to a despot. They will offer excuses for having withdrawn from our defense plans with the Eastern Europeans. They will say that they were an obstacle in the way of a new START Treaty. They will mention technological concerns about the defense system, and point to the alternative naval-based system favored by Obama. Nonsense. They withdrew because there was a latent notion that former Warsaw Pact territory falls under the Russian sphere of influence, that the USA had overstepped in its suggested NATO expansion, and on marginal issues like the location of missile defense hubs, the USA ought to show Mr. Putin some deference.

I want to see the Republican nominee carefully address this idiocy. And please, when pointing out the failure of appeasement, be specific. State with loaded inflection that in 2009, Vladimir Putin threatened to place its most advanced ballistic missile system in Kaliningrad. Our withering in the face of this threat postponed this aggressive act by three years.

We should also reject the notion that authoritarian and theocratic states can and should become successful regional powers. This applies to Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. The United States stands firm with former Warsaw Pact nations because they are former Warsaw Pact nations. They are among the most steadfast supporters of democracy today because they endured communism and Russian imperialism.

There are no easy answers for dealing with the Russians. But our relationship with the them over the last six and a half years should clear indicate what not to do. This administration has given Republicans plenty of material to work with. If they take off the kid gloves, they will win in 2016.

(Illustration from Punch, 1911. Caption: “If we hadn’t a thorough understanding, I might almost be tempted to ask what you are doing there with our little playfellow.”)

Published in Elections, Foreign Policy, General, Military, Politics
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  1. genferei Member

    They must make principled, nuanced arguments

    In what forum or by what means are these principled, nuanced arguments to be advanced?

    If consulted, I would recommend blogs, podcasts and YouTube videos. No doubt the GOP Candidate’s handlers will recommend an OpEd in the Wall St Journal and a series of gotcha interviews on the Sunday morning talks shows. Any address will be ruthlessly edited by the LSM to show the GOP Candidate as a dangerous loon, no matter the principles and nuance involved. Or just ignored, of course.

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Matt, if I were the American electorate, that candidate would win my vote. The sense I have from survey data and from the tone of the US press is that I’m very far from the electorate in feeling this way. Have you read this fairly typical account from the BBC’s Nick Bryant titled The Decline of US Power? lays out all the grim, well-known facts:

    … one of the reasons why the world has become so disorderly is because America is no longer so active in imposing order.

    Over the course of this century Washington has lost its fear factor.

    World leaders nowadays seem prepared to provoke the wrath of the White House, confident that it will never rain down on them.

    It explains why the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after unleashing chemical weapons against his people, continues to bombard them with barrel bombs. Why Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, and also offered a safe haven for the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. …

    In killing so many civilians with chemical weapons, [Assad] flagrantly crossed the “red line” imposed by Obama, but escaped punishment. The president was unwilling to carry through on an explicit threat, in what was the biggest foreign policy climbdown of his presidency and also one of the most significant in the past 50 years. Even supporters of Barack Obama believe he made a fatal strategic mistake, because it demonstrated endless flexibility and a lack of American resolve.

    Needless to say, despots around the world took note.

    America’s reluctance to launch new military actions has also had a major bearing on the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Tehran has managed to extract notable concessions, such as the ongoing ability to enrich uranium, hitherto ruled out by the American

    Nor is it just America’s enemies who no longer fear the White House to the extent they once did.In recent months, two close allies, Britain and Australia, have defied the Obama administration by joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

    By signing up to the AIIB, they are effectively endorsing Beijing’s effort to establish financial rivals to the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which are dominated by America. By seeking improved commercial and diplomatic relations with China, Britain and Australia are also hedging. They suspect that America will not be the dominant Pacific military power indefinitely, nor the world’s foremost economic powerhouse. … Other American allies would complain that the “dependability factor” has also gone.

    Israel feels badly let down by the Obama administration over the Iran deal, and relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama are poisonous. The president, by using deliberately ambiguous language, has even signalled that his administration might end its traditional protection of Israel at the United Nations. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia has been enraged by the prospective nuclear deal with the Iranians.

    Riyadh also knows that America is no longer so dependent on its oil, the cornerstone of the relationship since the end of World War Two. Egypt was angered in 2012 when Obama said Cairo was neither an ally nor an enemy. Later, the State Department issued an embarrassing correction, and reinstated Cairo as a “major non-Nato ally.”

    Indeed, a common complaint is that the Obama administration has prioritised normalising relations with its one-time enemies, Iran and Cuba, at the expense of fostering longstanding friendships. Realising that America is no longer so supportive, and no longer so engaged in the Middle East, the Saudis have recently taken military action of their own in Yemen. There’s also been a warming of relations between Riyadh and Moscow.

    And Egypt launched airstrikes in February against the Islamic State group in Libya.

    America’s standing in the Middle East has unquestionably waned, along with its ability to shape events. More surprising has been its slippage in Africa, Obama’s ancestral home, and Asia, the focus of his much vaunted pivot.In Asia, America’s median approval rating in 2014, as measured by Gallup, was 39%, a 6% drop since 2011. In Africa, the median approval went down to 59%, the lowest since polling began, despite Obama hosting the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington in August, last year.It even dropped in Kenya, his father’s birthplace.

    But here’s what I just don’t understand:

    Polls regularly show that Americans recognise that their country’s international standing has waned.Among the young, this trendline has fallen sharply. Only 15% of 18-29-year-olds believe that America is the “greatest country in the world”,according to Pew, down from 27% in 2011.

    And this is the part that mystifies me:

    Tellingly, however, there has been no great public outcry.

    No longer is there much appetite for America playing its long-standing role of global policeman, even in the face of the rise of the group calling itself Islamic State.

    The cost, human and financial, is considered too great. Americans increasingly think that other countries should share the burden.

    That there’s been no outcry, that no one sees this for the calamity it is … that’s what I just don’t understand. I want to believe that these things matter enough that the next election will be about them and the candidate who suggests he’s the best qualified to begin undoing this damage, but somehow I don’t think it will be.

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  3. user_989554 Inactive

    genferei – it’s hard not to fantasize driving some of this home during the debates, but you’re right that the most complete expatiation one could make would be youtube videos or long op-eds in the WSJ. A precise 30-60 seconds on the debate stage can make a difference, however.

    Regardless, anyone who tries to play up national security will have to endure some sabre-rattling cartoons.

    • #3
  4. user_989554 Inactive

    Hi Claire,

    That’s a sobering summary of the state of decline we’re witnessing all over the place. I found it hard to talk about just one subject in the above piece.

    Re. your last point: I’ve defended the Iraq War, but clearly one of its effects has been to make the public war-weary, especially of engagements in the Middle East. We receive a terrible ROI for all our blood and effort in that part of the world. Overcoming the retrograde insanity of the Islamists and entrenched sectarian grievances makes erecting stable Middle Eastern democracies an onerous task.

    So subconsciously when considering fighting ISIS a lot of people can’t face the prospect of another war. I think this contributes to a sense of helplessness in US citizens that is realized in those sad approval numbers.

    • #4
  5. AIG Inactive

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: That there’s been no outcry, that no one sees this for the calamity it is … that’s what I just don’t understand

    1) No one actually cares.

    2) Did you ever think that maybe these doom and gloom scenarios….are just plain old wrong?

    3) No one actually cares.

    This “foreign policy” arguments from the GOP are complete electoral losers. They’ll go up there and complain about stuff that happened 3 years ago where they can’t actually show any wrongdoing…

    …and where they certainly can’t provide or argue a better alternative.

    In fact, the only alternatives, to a problem no one cares about, that the GOP can provide at this point is the only alternative no one wants. And that is escalation.

    • #5
  6. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.


    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: That there’s been no outcry, that no one sees this for the calamity it is … that’s what I just don’t understand

    1) No one actually cares.

    It may be true that “many” don’t care, but “no one” is not true.

    2) Did you ever think that maybe these doom and gloom scenarios….are just plain old wrong?

    I’m not sure which ones you think are incorrect, or why, so I can’t answer that meaningfully.

    • #6
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