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December 17, 2014 10:57 am

Obama’s Failures Tell Us What to Avoid

avatar by John Bolton

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President Barack Obama. Photo: White House.

What role should foreign policy play in the 2016 presidential election campaign?

With good reason, national-security issues will loom larger than at any point since the 2004 Bush-Kerry election. The international threats now facing America, Barack Obama’s studied disinterest in dealing effectively with foreign challenges and adversaries and his pillaging and sacking of U.S. defense budgets have combined to leave the country and its allies in worldwide peril.

The 2014 congressional elections foreshadowed that voters understand better than many political “leaders” that we need greater focus on protecting the United States and advancing its interests internationally. In several campaigns, for example, national-security themes played major roles in Republican victories or helped challengers come far closer than originally anticipated.

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Although conventional political wisdom held until recently that voters see foreign policy as remote and distant from their daily lives, this is utterly untrue. One concrete manifestation of a mortal threat quickly reminds us that national security is, in fact, the existential political question. Whether the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, or the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, or this year’s barbaric ISIS beheadings of Americans and Europeans, once awakened from complacency, we have never relented.

At least until now. The challenge for the United States remains steering a course in international affairs that defends our interests, avoids the tragedies of unpreparedness and keeps the peace through strength and deterrence.

How, therefore, should voters go about assessing aspiring presidential candidates and what failings or transparent political evasions should they be alert to? What should be the candidates’ worldviews and strategies, substantive policy positions and personal qualities like judgment, experience and resolve? There is much to consider during the coming long months of campaigning. But one thing is certain: Obama’s failures tell us what to avoid.

First, voters should reject any candidate who treats national-security policy in a dismissive or offhand way. Even if the international environment were calm and unthreatening — which it is not — central to presidential leadership is the ability to anticipate challenges and address them while the costs are still relatively small. Simply ignoring threats, hoping they will not materialize, or saying that a candidate can trust foreign policy to well-qualified advisers is simply not acceptable.

Second, candidates should be proud to assert that a strong American international presence is positive and necessary for us and our allies. They must reject the idea that vigorously protecting our worldwide interests is somehow itself a cause of instability and conflict.

Obama clearly embraces the latter view, echoing George McGovern’s call to “come home America” as the prescription for our travails. In fact, America is a benign force globally, providing order and stability, creating the foundations for the interlocking globalized economy. Decreasing our politico-military presence, as Obama has done steadily these last six years, guarantees a more threatening environment later.

Too many potential candidates fail to grasp this essential insight that U.S. strength acts as a deterrent, reducing the risk of international conflict, not provoking it. Moreover, these neo-isolationists should not be allowed to hide by arguing that our economy must recover fully before we can afford a strong presence globally. In fact, the perception and the reality of American strength are critical to more rapidly reviving our economy, not an alternative.

Third, therefore, candidates must demonstrate they understand how closely interwoven domestic and foreign policy are. Obama seems to grasp such linkages only when it comes to global warming. For 2016 Democrat candidates, focusing on climate change could equal the error they made in 2009-10 by pushing ObamaCare rather than reviving the economy, as Sen. Chuck Schumer has helpfully explained.

Instead, accelerating our weak economic recovery requires candidates to appreciate that the economy is not simply a “domestic” issue. Massive government budget deficits crowd out private investment and reduce economic growth that can sustain the necessary defense budgets.

Having the highest corporate tax rate among major industrial democracies dramatically weakens us in international trade and reduces our attractiveness to foreign investment.

Energy policies that leave us and our key allies dependent on oil from unstable or potentially hostile foreign sources are both bizarre and easily remediable. Expanding our own energy production would strengthen domestic economic growth and also help redress the current international strategic balance.

There is much more but these are good places to start. It is not enough for candidates to “check the box” by giving national-security speeches filled with platitudes and bromides. Voters should press them on how they would respond specifically to threats like proliferation and terrorism and how they would respond to contemporary crises and hot spots. A national-security debate is not simply about slogans and bumper stickers. It is about demonstrating competence in the core issue entrusted to presidents by the Constitution.

John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. This article was originally published by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

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