“Underlying this absence was a palpable sense of resignation on the part of many who once had high hopes for 44, and a regretful sense of vindication for those who never expected much in the first place. The collective feeling of the 300 participants seemed to be that he had his shot, messed it up, and will be lucky to get out of office without a major catastrophe occurring.”
Unfortunately, this has been the sentiment both in the U.S. foreign policy community and among international allies for some time. Back in June, Dick and Liz Cheney wrote about their experience overseas:
In a trip to the Middle East this spring, we heard a constant refrain in capitals from the Persian Gulf to Israel, “Can you please explain what your president is doing?” “Why is he walking away?” “Why is he so blithely sacrificing the hard fought gains you secured in Iraq?” “Why is he abandoning your friends?” “Why is he doing deals with your enemies?”
In one Arab capital, a senior official pulled out a map of Syria and Iraq. Drawing an arc with his finger from Raqqa province in northern Syria to Anbar province in western Iraq, he said, “They will control this territory. Al Qaeda is building safe havens and training camps here. Don’t the Americans care?”
The absence of U.S. leadership and the not-coincidental uptick in violence in the Middle East, increased Russian aggression in Europe and China’s muscle-flexing in Asia should dispel some long-held nostrums of the left and isolationist right. The U.S. makes things worse. Multilateral institutions can handle this stuff. We spend more on defense than practically anyone else, so we should cut back. The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is the most important issue in the region.
In fact, our allies think when America retreats very bad things happen. And they are right. None of the current travails, be they in Iran (boasting now it has brought America to its knees) Ukraine or Asia, result from a failure of U.S. strength. In all three cases, foes have read us as unserious, uncommitted and desperate to avoid conflict even at the risk of our own vital self-interest.
In fact, multilateral institutions are generally useless (as in the Syrian civil war) without U.S. leadership. They don’t take initiative on their own and, if left to their own devices, they act in ways contrary to the interests of Western democracies (most especially in their constant vilification of Israel).
In fact, our reduction in defense capacity has been a signal to other powers that they can out-compete us for influence in the world. We spend more because we have global interests and responsibilities. And when we neglect the hard power that under-girds our diplomacy, we limit our capacity to influence events and stave off bigger problems.
In fact, the trouble in the Middle East has virtually no relation to Israel, except insofar as Iran seeks nuclear weapons in order to destroy the Jewish state. But of course, the nation’s ambitions in the region and efforts to undermine Sunni states would go on with no Israel. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups that are seeking to undermine the international order don’t care if Israel leaves the West Bank. They want to establish a caliphate and exterminate all non-believers, many of whom are Muslims.
As Cliff May writes that while Hamas and the Islamic State — are not a “single entity or even overtly allied,” they are both committed to “the imperative of Islamic conquest and domination. Both target noncombatants as a means toward that end, and both embrace an ideology based on a supremacist and bellicose interpretation of Islamic scripture. The so-called international community pretends not to perceive these parallels.” And worse, it expects Israel to use kid gloves in dealing with the local manifestation of Islamist terror, Hamas.
Therefore, it should be clear that detente with Iran, the sponsor of the Shi’a terrorist side, is an impossibility. To the contrary, we should be seeking to undermine and ultimately change that regime. In the near term, as argued in a task force report co-chaired by former 44 adviser Dennis Ross , we must “compete” much more intensely with Iran:
[A]s elements of its nuclear program have slowed under the interim deal, Tehran has continued its efforts to shift the balance of power on the ground in the Middle East. . . . . To arrest Iran’s regional power play and counter this dangerous perception of retrenchment, the United States could enforce the U.N. arms embargo against Iran, including by intercepting arms shipments to Iraq, Syria (via Iraq) and elsewhere. (The U.S. Navy was prepared to do just that in March 2014 against a ship smuggling Iranian-origin arms through the Red Sea, before the Israeli Navy apprehended the vessel.) Iran is subject to the legally-binding U.N. Security Council Resolution 1747 (2007) prohibiting it from supplying, selling or transferring arms or related materiel directly or indirectly. By assuaging U.S. allies’ fears of Iran’s growing regional influence, such actions could present a more united front against Tehran at the negotiating table, and make a final deal more acceptable to them. By showing that the United States is willing resort to measures beyond just negotiating, such actions could also magnify Iran’s concerns about the costs of diplomacy’s failure.
As Republicans are looking to formulate a post-44 foreign policy, they would do well to avoid 44’s fundamental errors. Like our Western allies, Republicans must go beyond 44. It will fall to them to re-establish American influence, lead and not follow multilateral bodies, restore defense spending and recommit to the eradication of Islamist terror in all its manifestations.