Published for the Washington Post, August 9, 2012
President Obama has avoided the traditional Democratic reputation for foreign policy weakness by emulating his predecessor in one narrow but important respect. Obama has not only continued George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism — whatever it is currently called — but has also expanded its scope and lethality. The legal and physical infrastructure of the conflict, from the Patriot Act to Guantanamo Bay, remains in place. The mommy party, in this instance, has become daddy with a drone and a hit list.
This has largely taken defense and foreign policy off the table in the current election. Team Romney is convinced, probably correctly, that each day devoted to national security is a day not spent talking about the economy. And criticizing the slayer of Osama bin Laden requires a more sophisticated critique than the presidential campaign — currently at the level of “Romney Hood” vs. “Obamaloney” — will bear.
But the war on terrorism does not exhaust America’s risks or responsibilities. The risks are increasing, along with doubts about our global role.
Syria’s civil war is approaching genocide as the regime shells villages and conducts mass executions. Russia has used the crisis to reassert its diplomatic influence. The United States, in Duke professor Peter Feaver’s description, has gone from “leading from behind” to “following from behind.” A strategy of stern denunciations, U.N. initiatives and minimal covert support for regime opponents has succeeded only in extending a savage conflict. And this is likely to make eventual retribution by rebels (assuming they win) bloodier, while leaving them more hostile to the United States.