Thursday, February 7, 2013

Panetta, Dempsey, and Syria

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey were on the Hill today, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) directly asked them if they had an any point supported arming anti-Assad rebel forces in Syria (something the President has thus far publicly resisted).  Both Panetta and Dempsey indicated that they had.

This of course, played right into Senator McCain's narrative, who appeared surprised by their direct and forthright answers.  That the President had the temerity to overrule the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs rankled Senator McCain, who said later in a press release, "What this means is that the president overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team.” 

Good for the President; so far, he is acting with wisdom on Syria, even in the face of the advice of many of his senior advisers.  Assad's a bad guy but the Rebels aren't a bunch of schoolboys.  Mr. Obama seems to recognize this, and he is moving with caution on a matter that is not vital to our national interests--at least not yet. Mr. McCain's suggestion that a President over-ruling his advisers should somehow be looked at askance strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of just who is in charge. 

We've discussed Republican foreign policy a bit in the past few weeks here on this blog, and we've seen quite a bit of it on display this week--book-ended by Senator McCain's activist stance at today's hearing and Senator Rand Paul's decidedly less-activist musings at Heritage earlier in the week.  Neither approach is a long-term winner for Republicans, and it is my hope that the Party begins to coalesce around a "via media" that places at its center the principle of strong American leadership, yes--exceptionalism--and then assiduously asserts that vital national interests--properly understood--are what drive our foreign policy. 

Left to Mr. McCain, Republican foreign policy would over-extend the nation and deplete its energies on lesser undertakings.  Left to Mr. Paul, the remaining power that the US does have at its disposal would slowly deteriorate, as the bar for its use steadily raised its price.  In both cases, the U.S. would ultimately end up weaker and less influential than it is now.

Before the good Lord takes him, George H.W. Bush and his team should hold a seminar for up and coming Republican foreign and defense policy thinkers about how the world's most influential superpower selectively engages based on its interests.  It is active on the world scene, it respects, shapes and leads international organizations, it acts when it should and it takes a pass on those issues that are secondary to its interests.  It is strong and unapologetic, but humble and collegial.  It is tolerant of other cultures and approaches, but without resorting to relativism.   It recognizes that Western Civilization has had a profoundly important impact on the lot of the average human on this earth, but that those who practice it do not have the market cornered on good ideas, or goodness.

Mr. Obama appears to practice some of the tenets I would claim for a Republican foreign policy, but in his statements and speeches, he skips the opportunity to defend Western values while scoffing at America's exceptional place in the world.  He is--at his heart--a selective engager, and that is why I believe his foreign policy has generally been one of the more successful elements of his Presidency.  Were Republicans to marry this general approach to a more direct and activist leadership role in the world, the makings of a sustainable foreign policy would appear.

Bryan McGrath

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