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Are We Facing a Dangerous Return of the Old Conservative Isolationism?

The statement does not address the president’s pointed silence on Syria, where we have daily evidence of the Assad regime’s growing terror against its own people, and where floods of refugees are attempting to flee to the sanctuary of the Turkish side of the border. Syria is the ally of Iran and an enabler of Hamas and Hezbollah, and yet, the administration seems reluctant to turn on the screws and depart from its earlier policy of seeking to work with Assad, whom it at first deemed to be a “reformer.”

When even the liberal New York Times editorializes that the president is showing both ineptness and weakness in dealing with Syria, and argues that “Washington needs to mount an all-out campaign to pass a tough United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria and imposing sanctions,” then it is obviously apparent to all how the Obama administration is floundering.

For conservatives and Republicans at a moment like this to be calling for cutting back spending on defense and withdrawing from the world, and using the old liberal-left argument that “spending for the military means less money for use at home,” is more than shameful. Writing in the Washington Post, editorial writer Jackson Diehl notes that Obama is timid on Syria, a real enemy of the West and the United States, while at the same time is tough on an ally, Israel. He writes:

He has spoken in public on Syria just twice since its massacres began three months ago. But he chose to spell out U.S. terms for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without the agreement of Israel’s prime minister, on the eve of meeting him at the White House and with only a few hours’ notice -- arguably the most high-handed presidential act in U.S.-Israeli relations since the Eisenhower administration.

Now, I can understand the sensibilities of those who feel that what is now our longest war, that in Afghanistan, is more than problematic, and that it could drift into an endless battle with no end in sight, costing scores of lives as well as billions of dollars that we cannot afford in perpetuity. But there is another argument here as well, that presented most recently by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan. The Kagans, who have spent most of the previous year in Afghanistan working with General David Petraeus, make the case that our effort in Afghanistan is directly tied to success in Pakistan. “Simply put,” the Kagans write, “if the U.S. abandons the mission in Afghanistan before achieving the objectives President Obama announced at West Point, the ‘counter-terrorism’ operations in Pakistan will also fail.” They warn of the major dangers awaiting us if we abandon Afghanistan prematurely.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prepares to leave his post and years of government service this week, he issued the following caveat in his Newsweek interview:

To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.

As the magazine comments, “Such a statement -- rather astonishing for the leader of the world’s preeminent fighting force -- may open the administration to charges of not believing in American exceptionalism, an opening the GOP is already trying to exploit.”

Most serious, the article continues, is that “[in] Afghanistan, Gates leaves behind a difficult, unfinished piece of business: to convince Congress and war-weary Americans that any major U.S. withdrawal should be delayed by a year -- a deferment sought by military commanders on the ground.”

This indeed is precisely the dilemma. For Republicans and conservatives to argue at such a critical moment that withdrawal should be advanced rather than delayed is both irresponsible and tactically wrong.

Do we really want to see a new liberal-conservative alliance against the exercise of American power at a historic moment when it is needed more than ever? This is something the current crop of candidates seeking the Republican nomination should seriously consider more carefully before their next debate.