President Obama’s announcement that U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 should have been no surprise. As the Washington Post editorial page pointed out, “You can’t fault President Obama for inconsistency. After winning election in 2008, he reduced the U.S. military presence in Iraq to zero. After helping to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, he made sure no U.S. forces would remain. He has steadfastly stayed aloof, except rhetorically, from the conflict in Syria.”
The Post editors—who endorsed Barack Obama for election in 2008 and for reelection in 2012—went on to observe:
The Afghan decision would be understandable had Mr. Obama’s previous choices proved out. But what’s remarkable is that the results also have been consistent—consistently bad. Iraq has slid into something close to civil war, with al-Qaeda retaking territory that U.S. Marines once died to liberate. In Syria, al-Qaeda has carved out safe zones that senior U.S. officials warn will be used as staging grounds for attacks against Europe and the United States. Libya is falling apart, with Islamists, secularists, military and other factions battling for control.
One might add: Iran, with the acquiescence of the Obama administration, is on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold state. Russia has responded to five years of efforts by the Obama administration to “reset” our relationship by invading a neighboring state. American counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan have now virtually ground to a halt, and al Qaeda branches and affiliates are gaining strength throughout the greater Middle East. FBI director James Comey recently commented, “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”
Let’s repeat that last sentence from the Obama administration’s new FBI head: Al Qaeda affiliates “are stronger than I appreciated.” One could says more generally: Our enemies are stronger than the administration appreciates. The United States is weaker than the administration appreciates.
So what is the loyal opposition to do? First of all, don’t be intimidated by the president’s demagoguery. Speaking at West Point, President Obama derided critics of his foreign policy as “either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.” Both charges are risible. As for the first, Obama’s West Point speech may be the most ahistorical major foreign policy speech ever given by an American president. It offers no “reading” of the history of American foreign policy, or even of post-Cold War or post-9/11 American foreign policy, to support his policies. The headline of the Post editorial the next day was correct: “At West Point, President Obama rejects decades of U.S. foreign policy.” But he offered no rationale for that rejection either.
As for the charge of partisanship, we cite the Post once again:
President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries. That conclusion can be heard not just from Republican hawks but also from senior officials from Singapore to France and, more quietly, from some leading congressional Democrats.
In any case, if the president wants to insist that his critics are mere partisans, we would respond: We wear his scorn as a badge of honor. Edmund Burke, the founder of the modern political party, described it as “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”
The principle upon which Republicans are agreed, and which leads them to oppose President Obama’s foreign policy, can be summarized as American strength. In a talk given the same day as Obama’s West Point remarks, Rep. Mac Thornberry, the next chairman of the Armed Services Committee, emphasized: “Peace through strength is one of those principles we can and should relearn, keep fresh, and apply over and over.”
Thornberry’s speech suggests Republicans may rise to the challenge of providing serious opposition to Obama’s foreign policy—and of laying out an alternative. Thornberry made the case that, under Obama, the United States is and is seen to be “in withdrawal mode.” He pointed out the consequences: “Aggressors are emboldened; friends are unsure; neutrals are making new calculations; and according to the yearly index published by Freedom House, freedom is in retreat, declining for the eighth consecutive year.”
Thornberry called attention to the intersection of “military weakness” and “loss of credibility in the world,” and pointed out that “defense spending this year is 17 percent of the federal budget, the lowest since before World War II.” In a break with recent Republican orthodoxy, he called for replacing the defense budget caps in current law with “something more reasonable,” i.e., higher spending levels. And he explained that he is “not willing to accept that we must have a smaller military and a smaller role in the world. Most Republicans and many Democrats are not willing to throw up our hands in retreat and resign ourselves to a smaller military and a smaller role. Because we know that as the United States retreats, others will fill the void, and those others will not move the world toward greater freedom and prosperity.”
Thornberry closed by quoting Tony Blair and Ronald Reagan. Blair: “Don’t worry so much about being loved. Just be strong. . . . What the world needs now is for you to be strong.” Reagan: “We must be strong enough to create peace where it does not exist and strong enough to protect it where it does.”
It’s fair for doubters to note that one speech does not a trend make. But when one takes note of what Senator Ted Cruz has been saying on his trip to Israel and Ukraine, when one sees Republican Senators trying to prevent a bad deal with Iran, when one hears Republicans from Marco Rubio to Mike Pence to Eric Cantor stepping up to make serious statements on defense and foreign policy, one has cause to be heartened.
Reversing Obama’s years of weakness and retreat will be difficult. It will require political courage. It will require a willingness to take on both the alleged “war-weariness” of the public and the all-too-real disdain for American strength of many of our elites.
But the consequences of continued American weakness and retreat are awful to contemplate. For what we see around the world today is, as Winston Churchill said in October 1938, “only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
It is the task of today’s Republican party to help bring about a recovery of America’s moral health and martial vigor. It’s no easy task. But no great task ever is.