Sept. 11, 2001 changed us in many ways. Suddenly, a post-cold war America was again at war, this time with radical Islam. Many of us did not realize that our terrorist enemies had been at war with us for many years.
Soon, American special forces were on the ground in Afghanistan assisting the moderates known as the "Northern Alliance." Shortly thereafter, we were back in Iraq — this time to destroy Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a mission never accomplished. The violent sectarian strife and haltingly successful nation building that followed were primary drivers of major Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, including the election of an avowed anti-war senator from Illinois who promised to "bring the troops home." This he has (mostly) accomplished. The last U.S. combat troops left Iraq in 2010; a similar departure is scheduled in Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
That an "enough is enough" attitude prevails in today's America is beyond doubt. Public opinion polls reflect that Americans have had their fill of the brutal and confusing Middle East. Even the blood thirst of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, fails to invite American interest. Thirteen years of violent, indeterminate conflict has America looking inward.
The president's rhetoric fits the times. Early in his tenure, "war on terror" was replaced by "overseas contingency operations." More recently, "this is how wars end in the 21st century" was the president's description of staged withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. A very public withdrawal schedule from both engagements had been earlier announced to friends and foes alike. A promise to bomb Bashar Assad's Syria for its use of WMD was accompanied by a pitifully weak caveat: to engage in an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort," per Secretary of State John Kerry. Yet even this minimal mission was shelved. Have we ever witnessed an American president more keenly interested in announcing what our military will not do in order to achieve our foreign policy goals? My now familiar indictment bears repeating: formerly anti-war Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry are simply not comfortable with the projection of U.S. military might around the world. As for the president — FDR, Truman and Reagan he most certainly is not.
Still, such rhetoric serves the president's central campaign promise: We are the world, the cowboy Mr. Bush is gone, the U.S. now understands the limits of American power, and we are no longer the insensitive imperialists the world grew to hate.
Nevertheless, there is a growing sense in Congress (if not in the country) that the president must move past periodic denunciations and diplomatic rhetoric during a time the world appears to be spinning out of control.
What's needed is a far more decisive U.S. role in world events. The president can continue to denigrate the aggressiveness of the Bush era (it's what he does best), but serial condemnation of the world's miscreants and a "leading from behind" modus operandi instills little respect (let alone fear) in our enemies. In fact, such dilettantes only encourage bad actors (Vladimir Putin-Bashar Assad-Hamas-ISIS-Kim Jong-il) to act out in destabilizing ways. It also discourages important allies (Poland, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) when we fail to honor our commitments in dangerous places. This is no way for the world's only super power to be perceived in unstable times.
This proposed change of course will necessitate a difficult reality check. The great orator's considerable speech making skills do not magically transform ugly reality into happy endings. Just take a look at recent events. The Benghazi anti-Islam video narrative was a ruse to cover the government's own negligence. A hashtag campaign in response to Mr. Putin's Ukrainian belligerence only strengthens the view of the U.S. (and NATO) as a paper tiger. The announced failure to secure status-of-forces agreements in Iraq and Afghanistan assured the terrorists we would cut and run — regardless of circumstances. And little is ever discussed about the constant provocations of an unstable, nuclear North Korea.
Unfortunately, this hoped for dose of reality seems to have led to frustration, even detachment. In this regard, some pundits have observed the president's disillusionment with world leaders seemingly immune to his considerable charm. A messy world too often disappoints the audacious dreamer. Indeed, a more simplistic worldview was no doubt easier when the young Barack Obama was voting "present" in the Illinois legislature. But real (even existential) threats daily confront a U.S. president.
Will this president overcome his preference for indecisiveness and rise to the occasion? Regardless of political affiliation, all Americans should hope so. The world will be a better (and safer) place for it.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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