Progressives and Disorder

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from The Wall Street Journal,

The next two years may be the most dangerous since the Cold War ended.

As the calendar turns toward the final two years of the Obama Presidency, this is a moment to consider the world it has produced. There is no formal Obama Doctrine that serves as the 44th President’s blueprint for America’s engagement with the world. But it is fair to say that Barack Obama brought into office a set of ideas associated with the progressive, or left-leaning, wing of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment.

“Leading from behind” was the phrase coined in 2011 by an Obama foreign-policy adviser to describe the President’s approach to the insurrection in Libya against Moammar Gaddafi. That phrase may have since entered the lexicon of derision, but it was intended as a succinct description of the progressive approach to U.S. foreign policy.

The Democratic left believes that for decades the U.S. national-security presence in the world—simply, the American military—has been too large. Instead, when trouble emerges in the world, the U.S. should act only after it has engaged its enemies in attempts at detente, and only if it first wins the support and participation of allies and global institutions, such as NATO, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and so on.

In an interview this week with National Public Radio, Mr. Obama offered an apt description of the progressive foreign-policy vision. “When it comes to ISIL, us devoting another trillion dollars after having been involved in big occupations of countries that didn’t turn out all that well” is something he is hesitant to do.

Instead, he said, “We need to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding our schools, our roads, our basic science and research here in the United States; that is going to be a recipe for our long-term security and success.”

That $1 trillion figure is one of the President’s famous straw-man arguments. But what is the recipe if an ISIL or other global rogue doesn’t get his memo?

Islamic State’s success has emboldened or triggered other jihadist movements, despite Mr. Obama’s assurance that the war on terror was fading.

Radical Islamists are grabbing territory from U.S. allies in Yemen. They have overrun Libya’s capital and threaten its oil fields. Boko Haram in Nigeria, the kidnappers of some 275 schoolgirls in April, adopted the ISIL terror model. U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are struggling to cope with the violence spreading out of Syria and Iraq. Mr. Obama can only hope that the Afghan Taliban do not move now to retake Kandahar after he announced this week with premature bravado “the end of the combat mission.”

The crucial flaw in the Democratic left’s model of global governance is that it has little or no answer to containing or deterring the serious threats that emerge in any region of the world when the U.S. retreats from leadership.

In February, the crisis in Ukraine began and worsened quickly, as Vladimir Putin ’s Russian forces occupied Crimea. Next came the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine, with a Malaysian airliner shot down in July, killing 283 passengers. Through it all, Mr. Obama refused the pleas of Ukraine and staunch allies such as Poland to provide the Ukrainian army with the basic means to defend itself. He limited his support to non-military supplies, such as battlefield food rations.

In defense of his looming nuclear-weapons deal with Iran, Mr. Obama told his NPR interviewer: “I believe in diplomacy, I believe in dialogue, I believe in engagement.” He said Iran could be “a very successful regional power” that is “abiding by international norms and rules.”

Short of a miraculous change in the revolutionary Iranian leadership, such a worldview is at best willfully hopeful or at worst hopelessly naive. As former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz has repeatedly pointed out, diplomacy and engagement are always good, but only if backed by a credible threat to deploy U.S. military resources. A fist inside a velvet glove. After five years of progressive foreign policy under Mr. Obama, the world sees the U.S. as an empty velvet glove.

The final two years of the Obama Presidency will thus be the most dangerous since the end of the Cold War as the world’s rogues calculate how far they can go before a successor enters the White House in 2017. A bipartisan coalition in Congress may be able to limit some of the damage, but the first step toward serious repair is understanding how Mr. Obama’s progressive foreign policy has contributed to the growing world disorder.

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