A Bumper Sticker World

My Comments: A conversation this morning with an attorney friend revealed a world which is far more complicated today than seemed possible just a few short years ago. He remarked that tens of thousands of new laws have entered the books across these United States in the last three decades. It’s impossible to know the rules we are subjected to as we travel from one state to another. What is OK in Florida might not be OK in Tennessee.

So I understand the frustration by many on the right that leads them to argue in favor of a simpler time. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. My solution is to stop worrying about what might have been and instead focus on what might be. That demands some creative thinking and a semblance of recognition about what today really looks like, who the stakeholders are and what steps to take to improve the chances my grandchildren will have going forward.

For me, the first step is a willingness to step outside my comfort zone. How far are you willing to step?

Philip Stephens, April 23, 2015

It is easier to say that Obama never gets it right than to come up with an alternative strategy.

There’s one thing on which everyone lining up for next year’s US presidential race can agree. Barack Obama has led from behind on the global stage. The president has been shy about deploying US might, accommodating of adversaries and reticent about standing up for allies. His successor in the White House, we are to believe, will restore America’s global prestige by standing up to China, facing down Russia and sorting out the Middle East. An old friend in Washington, a foreign policy veteran of the Reagan administration, calls this a “bumper sticker” view of the world. He is right.

The chatter in an already crowded Republican field is that 2016 will be a “foreign policy election”. Republicans fear that a buoyant economy will narrow the range of domestic targets. National security offers obvious opportunities. The march across Syria and Iraq of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has revived fears of new attacks on the US. Mr. Obama’s proposed deal with Iran falls short of the scrapping of Tehran’s nuclear program. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is menacing America’s European allies.

The 2016 hopefuls are as hawkish as they are inexperienced in foreign affairs. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and the rest all promise to be tough-guy presidents. Even Rand Paul, who once flirted with isolationism, has hardened up the rhetoric. Mr. Bush blames Mr. Obama’s hesitations for the rise of Isis. Mr. Rubio, who marches under the old neoconservative standard of “a new American Century”, would slam the door again on Cuba. They are all against the nuclear deal with Iran.

Republican hawks are not alone. Hillary Clinton served as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state. Now she is running for the office he denied her in 2008. Admirers say she too would be more robust. Had she not argued for arming moderate Syrian rebels and for a reset of the reset with Moscow when Mr. Putin started throwing his weight around? Were she to set a “red line” there would be real consequences for those who crossed it. Mrs. Clinton, of course, is under attack from Republicans for the deaths of US diplomats in Benghazi. All the more reason to show her mettle.

Some of the criticisms of Mr. Obama’s approach to global affairs have a point. Most of them miss a bigger one.

In one respect, to say that the president has often been reluctant to throw America’s weight around is simply to describe the circumstance of his election in 2008. He inherited two wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the US was losing both of them. George W Bush had tested to destruction the notion that American military power could remake the Middle East. Mr. Obama’s task was to get the troops home.

The charge against the president that half-sticks is that the imperative to end these military entanglements has encouraged him to be overcautious elsewhere. Officials who have served in the administration say he is slow to weigh the costs of inaction. Power is about perception as well as economic strength and military hardware. It is one thing to draw a tighter definition of America’s national interests; another to forget that if the US steps back in one part of the world, allies and enemies elsewhere draw their own conclusions.

The impact of Mr. Obama’s decision to allow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to cross a red line was felt as much in east Asia as in the Middle East. China’s new assertiveness in the East and South China seas has been grounded in a calculation that the White House wants to avoid confrontation.

It is easier to say that Mr. Obama has never got it right than to come up with a strategy to tilt the balance back in the other direction. Risk-taking is not just about military force. The diplomacy with Iran has been bold. Save in the dreams of diehard neoconservatives, the US lacks the resources and political will for “generational projects” to transform the Middle East.

The Republican contenders do not want to admit that, relatively speaking, the US is weaker. You do not have to be a US declinist to observe the rising economic and military weight of China, India and others. Nor, with the end of the cold war, can foreign policy be framed as a simple fight between good and evil. Not so long ago, Republicans were talking about Islamic State as the big threat. Now the danger comes from Iran. And yet Tehran is a fierce enemy of the jihadis.

The neat lines drawn by the contest with communism have disappeared. The new international disorder is being defined at once by the return of great power rivalry — think of China and Russia — and, paradoxically, by the collapse of the post-imperial state system in the Middle East. The US remains the most powerful nation but, on its own, it is insufficient.

The case for Mr. Obama is that in seeking to deploy economic and diplomatic power, and to leverage US influence through multinational coalitions, he has recognized the complexities of this new landscape. The case against is that he has sometimes gone too far in drawing the limits of US power.

What has been missing is an overarching framework — a set of principles clear and practical enough to deter adversaries and to reassure allies. A grand strategy, in other words, that balances ambition and realism. Republicans used to have a reputation for such thinking. Now they prefer bumper stickers.