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Obama Cautious on War, But Successor Won't Be

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President Obama's decision to send 300 military advisors to bolster a panicked Iraqi army in full retreat from Islamic jihadists will hardly quell the furious debate about American military intervention in the Middle East. The reaction to Iraq's continuing agony underscores that Obama's skepticism about armed intervention has planted only shallow roots in Washington.

Despite the public's apparent antipathy to overseas adventurism, both political parties seem on track to banishing Obama-style realism from the Oval Office when he clears his desk in January 2017. Republican leaders have successfully contained their grassroots isolationist revolt, notwithstanding Senator Rand Paul. Hillary Clinton's virtually uncontested candidacy among Democrats bodes well for a return to kinetic interventionism in the president's own party once he is out of the way.

Enthusiasm for robust interventionism now seems hard-wired into Republican DNA. It wavered only once, when Obama sought congressional authorization for military action against Syria to end its use of chemical weapons. But Republicans remain remarkably unrepentant about backing George Bush's invasion of Iraq. Far from it: they denounce Obama for respecting the Iraqis' demand that U.S. troops go home. The party still rallies to Karl Rove's vision that "we're an empire now."

Hillary Clinton, at least, acknowledges that the war "turned out to be a mistake" and says she is "regretful" about "how the war unfolded." She also told the Council on Foreign Relations last week that, on U.S. military involvements, "I think the president has read the American public well"--although "that may not always lead to the consequences one wishes."

While Clinton is properly deferential to the president who appointed her Secretary of State, the headlong flight of Iraqi forces from Mosul and other towns in Iraq's Sunni heartland has stirred sharper comments from her foreign-policy brain trust. These put in clearer focus the shift in direction Americans should expect in a second Clinton presidency.

One Clinton advisor, the intellectually lustrous neoconservative Robert Kagan, this week averred that "If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it's something that might have been called neocon." Of course, Kagan adds, "clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else." Indeed, the New York Times reported, Clinton "remains the vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes."

Perhaps the most startling criticism of Obama's policies this week came in an essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a close Clinton confidante who served her as director of policy planning in the State Department. From the start Slaughter has, she says, "argued repeatedly for the use of force in Syria -- to no avail," on the grounds that American arms shipments and air strikes would counter the Syrian government's ferocious use of force against rebel-controlled areas. Secretary Clinton herself made Slaughter's case directly to the president.

Obama's grudging steps now to bolster Baghdad against the fanatical Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam are bewildering, Slaughter writes, since the struggle against ISIS is equally urgent in Syria. The use of U.S. military power that Obama has been too "blind" to unleash (a stinging rebuke to the president she nominally served) would be a godsend for the people of both Iraq and Syria, Slaughter says--"likely to stop the violence and misery they experience on a daily basis."

Secretary Clinton's policy planning chief states flatly that the United States should marshal enough force to retaliate against "any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power."

Such robust confidence in the palliative power of unilateral military force clearly does not cut the ice with Obama. His calibrated use of force in Libya was conditioned on international legality through a United Nations Security Council resolution, and even there the results are murky at best. It would be useful if Clinton would clarify her own inclinations on such questions, but with no real challenger she has scant need to do so.

For now, Clinton professes full loyalty to the president even as she opens a bit of space from him and her successor in his service, John Kerry. In her sparkling appearance before the Council of Foreign Relations she charmed even strong Obama partisans with her warmth and intelligence. But careful listeners could detect hints of a different direction, perhaps closer to what Kagan and Slaughter articulate publicly:

  • "With respect to Syria, yeah, I did feel quite strongly that we needed to see if it were possible to vet and train and equip moderate opposition figures.... So this is not just a Syrian problem anymore. I never thought it was just a Syrian problem. I thought it was a regional problem."
  • If the new president of Afghanistan were to ask to keep U.S. troops there beyond Obama's announced withdrawal date of 2016, "I would," Clinton said, "be open to considering that, to supporting that."
  • "I had a lot of apprehension about just throwing Mubarak out of office....At a certain point, you know, the president and other leaders spoke out and said he had to go, but I remained apprehensive about what would follow."
  • On Israel/Palestine, "In my time, we were constantly speaking out against the Fatah-Hamas merger to create some kind of unified government.... I think for the time being, serious negotiations are understandably put off. And that's partly because they collapsed, but it's also partly because Israel, the U.S., and others have to assess what this merger really means."

The fault lines on foreign policy that divided Democrats in 2008 still exist. Without a hotly contested war to focus public attention, as in that year (and 1968), these differences are unlikely to affect the party's choice of presidential candidate, regardless of the stiffening antiwar sentiment in the party's congressional wing. Former secretary Clinton's glide path to her party's nomination in 2016 seems assured, and with it, regardless of which party wins, a more actively interventionist America in 2017.