How Best Not to Respond to ISIS

For the left, American power must never be exercised except in the direst of situations, and even then, it must not be a unilateral exercise of power.

This is the logic underlying the White House response to ISIS, or the Islamic State, as it calls itself.  At this time, the U.S. military has the capacity to obliterate this gang of thugs with a relatively modest projection of force.  If the administration continues to drag its feet, it will be much harder.  Yet Obama continues to drag his feet, because he believes that America “leads from behind.”

Never in our history has a president enunciated such a nonsensical foreign policy.  To begin with, “lead from behind” is a childish oxymoron – the sort of mantra this administration invents to suppress thought and discussion rather than to encourage them.  “Lead from behind” is a mindless contradiction, and as such it suggests that Obama’s foreign policy is either mindless and contradictory or that it is not foreign policy at all.  It is simply made up as events unfold.

There is plenty of evidence to support both of those conclusions.  Charles Krauthammer, who finds Obama’s foreign policy “ad hoc, erratic, and confused,” seems to be in the second camp, though he is also skeptical as to whether there are ideas of any kind underlying this administration’s policy.  According to one Obama adviser quoted by Krauthammer, the U.S. must lead from behind because America lacks the relative strength it once had and because American power is resented overseas.  Why should America attempt to project strength?

On that basis, Obama continues to lead from behind.  His limited use of airstrikes against ISIS resembles Bill Clinton’s hand-slapping of al-Qaeda following the destruction of two of our embassies in East Africa in 1996.  Forced to do something, Clinton exerted the least possible force.  Now the Clinton doctrine has been expanded to read, Exert no force whatsoever.

Even the announcement of Obama’s airstrikes was couched in terms of weakness.  America would play a “limited and supporting role,” Obama announced.  Supporting what?  An Iraqi army fleeing with its tail between its legs?

The ruling principle of Obama’s foreign policy is his fear of being seen as what the left would call an “imperialist.”  It is important to understand the central importance of this word to the left wing of the Democratic Party.  The McGovernites on the left believe that any projection of military force is an act of imperialism.  Likewise, they find any manifestation of economic success or cultural influence to be imperialistic.

By this reasoning, America must always lead from behind.  We will certainly continue to do so as long as Obama is president.

There’s just one problem.  It is the stated policy of ISIS to liquidate all who do not subscribe to the Sunni branch of Islam.  Ultimately, that would include some 7 billion human beings.  In the immediate future, it includes hundreds of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities, as well as Shiite Muslims, within the territories seized by ISIS.

I suspect that Obama will attempt to play out the clock by using limited airstrikes, and so pass the ISIS problem on to his successor (just as Bill Clinton did with al-Qaeda in 2001).  In the long run, however, leading from behind is not an “organizing principle,” as Hillary Clinton points out.  Granted her organizing principle would seem to be leaving the doors of our consulates wide open for attack and then sneering, “What difference at this point does it make?” when four Americans are slaughtered. 

The underlying reason for Obama’s policy failure is his refusal to embrace American exceptionalism.  Obama despises American power.  He has apologized to our enemies and expressed shame over how American force has been exercised in the past.

In his Cairo university speech of June 4, 2009, Obama stated  repeatedly that the U.S. did not intend to exert force unilaterally in the Middle East, or anywhere else.  In that speech, he pointed out that the U.S. was “partnering with a coalition of 46 countries” in the war in Afghanistan, that it intended “to use diplomacy and build international consensus” in Iraq rather than employ force, and that the trauma of 9-11 had “led us to act contrary to our traditions and ideals.”  Nothing but the Four Seasons for captured terrorists in the future, and Miranda rights clearly specified in English and Arabic.  

Most Americans were not paying attention to the Cairo speech, but the leaders of ISIS and other terrorist organizations were – and they were emboldened in their efforts to set up Islamic states throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.  By lowering his guard, Obama has invited attacks on the United States and its allies.  But he refuses to raise his guard because his thinking is controlled by the puerile notion that the projection of force, even in self-defense, is always shameful.

That, by the way, is a belief that Hillary Clinton, up until her Atlantic interview of August 10, seems to have shared.  In that interview, with Jeffrey Goldberg, she stated that she would have prevented the rise of ISIS by providing military aid to the pro-Western rebels in Syria.  I do not recall her providing such aid while she was serving as secretary of state.  Perhaps she whispered a suggestion of it in Barack’s ear, but there is no record of her doing so.  Perhaps she threatened to resign because her advice was not heeded.  In truth, it’s hard to recall anything she did as secretary of state except get four Americans killed.

As a matter of fact, even with her newfound show of hawkishness, Hillary still rejects American exceptionalism.  In the very same Atlantic interview in which she pretends to have been a defense hawk all along, she apologizes for America’s having done “things that we are not particularly proud of.”  Heck, says Hillary, “we supported pretty nasty guys.”

Well, maybe we need to support nasty guys when they are our friends, and do some stuff we’re not particularly proud of when we’re fighting fellows like ISIS.  Hillary still doesn’t get it, any more so than does her former boss.

But what Hillary and Obama really don’t get is the crucial relationship between American exceptionalism and policy.  America is great, powerful, and rich, and this is reason for celebration, not for apology.  America is still the envy of the world.  Let them envy.  And American power is great.  Let them fear it.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published twelve books and hundreds of articles on American culture and politics.

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