The Magazine

Obama Calls Retreat

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Kiev is ablaze. Syria is a killing field. The Iranian mullahs aren’t giving up their nuclear weapons capability, and other regimes in the Middle East are preparing to acquire their own. Al Qaeda is making gains and is probably stronger than ever. China and Russia throw their weight around, while our allies shudder and squabble.

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The B-team

The B-team

Why is this happening? Because the United States is in retreat. What is the Obama administration’s response to these events? Further retreat.

Having withdrawn from Iraq, and seeing it now fall apart, the administration is nonetheless determined to get out of Afghanistan. Its Russia “reset” is a joke, and its “pivot to Asia” an empty slogan. Secretary of State John Kerry huffed and puffed when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons last year, and asserted it was a Munich moment. How right he was! Kerry came back brandishing a piece of paper, and Assad remains in power.

Having failed to hold Assad accountable for the use of weapons of mass destruction, Kerry now says that global climate change may be the weapon of mass destruction we should most fear. Sure. Meanwhile, in the real world of real weapons, our military is being decimated in size as it is being enervated by political correctness. And on the matter of sheer competence in the execution of foreign policy, to say that we have a B-team in charge is an insult to B-teams everywhere.

We’re tempted to produce at this point appropriate Winston Churchill warnings and statements from the 1930s. But the current situation is almost too pathetic to be worthy of Churchillian exhortation. We’re dealing with no recent memory of the Great War, no Great Depression, no Hitler or Tojo or even a Mussolini. We don’t need extraordinary heroism or exemplary statesmanship to deal with the second- and third-rate threats that we face. We require competent men taking serious measures.

But we don’t have them. And of course second- and third-rate threats, if unchecked, can cause much death and destruction. Minor league gangs and small-time thugs can destroy a neighborhood if there’s no police force. A small infection, if untreated and allowed to spread, can kill as surely as a cancer. Rome fell not to the majestic Hannibal but to groups of unimpressive barbarians. Chaos that results from weakness and dissolution can be as hard to remedy as defeat by formidable and well-organized foes. A panicked retreat can be hard to reverse even if the original opponent isn’t that formidable. It’s undoubtedly true that “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” But weeds can kill a garden too. And under President Obama, we’ve allowed the weeds to spread and multiply at an amazing rate.

All of which leads us—in this instance at least—to cite the Lincoln of 1838 rather than the Churchill of 1938: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Suicide isn’t yet imminent. But we are on the cusp of accepting—even embracing?—a stance of shirking fearfulness and shrinking timidity. A nation of free men needs at times like this leaders who step forward to “sound forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.” Obama has a piccolo that only calls retreat.

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