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Obama, Fending Off Imaginary Hawks

Obama, Fending Off Imaginary Hawks

By Mark Salter - May 31, 2014

You can usually measure the pervasiveness of the criticism directed at President Obama’s policies by how many straw men he slays in their defense. By that calculation, his address Wednesday to West Point graduates -- which, in the opinion of the Washington Post, “marshaled a virtual corps of straw men” -- is practically an admission that his world leadership is as feckless as his harshest critics insist.

Bravely rowing with the current of war-weary American public opinion, the president rebuked imaginary calls “for invading every country that harbors terrorist networks.” He chastised unnamed hawks who “say that every problem has a military solution,” and upbraided heretofore unheard critics “who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.” And because he has steadfastly resisted such intemperate importuning, America’s global leadership is as strong as ever.

Never mind that Obama has had to dispatch his secretaries of state and defense to reassure anxious friends and allies around the world they can still trust America’s commitment to their security and a stable world order. Never mind that doubts on that score are far more prevalent today among allies and adversaries than they were when that rash, obtuse George W. Bush was in charge. Never mind that leading Democrats and usually reliable defenders such as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius now worry that this president is incapable of learning from his mistakes.

When public criticism of Obama’s leadership became no longer entirely attributable to his political opponents, you’d hope it would prompt some soul-searching—or, at least a quiet search for answers. Instead, the president and his staff continue to belittle their critics with cartoonish depictions. Their conceit is that only our president can see the folly of pretending the United States lives alone on the planet and the folly of wanting to invade every country that looks at us cross-eyed. What would we do without him? How does he always manage to find the middle distance between two nonexistent points of view?

What would those bellicose critics have the president do with the 10,000 U.S. troops who will remain in Afghanistan next year? Give them a mission they can accomplish rather than a timetable for their withdrawal that isn’t determined by their progress? Would they have him not tell the Taliban and al-Qaeda when they can expect us to leave? Heaven help us.

What would they have had him do in Syria? Train and arm the moderate opposition to Assad before extremists could dominate the rebellion? Help create safe havens where displaced Syrian civilians might find some protection before the dead numbered in six figures? Did they expect him to actually make good on his repeated threat to use military force to punish Assad for using chemical weapons? What kind of backward 20th-century thinking believes a reputation for making empty threats might impair a president’s conduct of foreign policy?

If the hawks had had their way, they might have imposed more than de minimis sanctions on Russia for invading and annexing the territory of a neighboring country. They might not have declared their policy a success, as the president did at West Point, while tens of thousands of Russian military are still maneuvering on the border, and violent, pro-Russian separatists are still in open rebellion and prevented voters in Eastern Ukraine from participating in the recent election.

They might even have agreed to supply defensive arms to the legitimate government of Ukraine, which the Obama administration has refused to do. But they would not, as the president and his aides implied, declared war on Russia or sent in the Marines.

Nowhere in the president’s catalogue of hotheads pecking away at his enlightened world leadership is mention made of foreign governments that doubt the reliability of that leadership. Why is it that the Baltic states and Poland have to be reassured their NATO allies would come to their defense should Putin covet parts of their countries? Why do we have to convince the Saudis and the Israelis we still share their concerns about Iran? Why do friends in Asia openly doubt whether their alliance with the U.S. will protect them from China’s claims on their territory? Are they all suffering under the same delusions as the president’s firebrand detractors?

While we’re at it, if it wasn’t a mistake for the U.S. to let Syria burn, as the crazy hawks insisted it was, why is the president purportedly rethinking that decision? Nothing has happened there that critics hadn’t predicted would happen.

Barack Obama has 2½ years left in office. As we saw in 1981, the world’s opinion of U.S. leadership can improve quickly with the inauguration of a new American president. It is possible that will be the case in 2017. But there could be a rough couple of years ahead if Obama never learns from his mistakes. Let’s hope that while he’s dismissing policies that no one is actually advocating our friends and foes don’t decide their interests are better served in a world order no longer maintained by American power. That would be a calamity a million dead straw men couldn’t defend. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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