Crotchety and defensive about a stewardship that half of likely voters find, well, inadequate to present purposes, Barack Obama in the foreign policy debate trafficked most memorably in pre-planned insults to his opponent. "[W]e have these things called aircraft carriers ... these ships that go under water," was the retort to Mitt Romney's expostulation concerning shrinkage of our navy.
Why is the United States a safer, healthier place than Barack Obama found it upon entering the White House? Is it, indeed, that kind of place? On that score, the president wasn't much help. Not that he particularly meant to be, concerned as he was with appearing more commander-in-chiefish than his opponent: more involved in the minutiae of foreign affairs. More involved he certainly is -- by virtue of holding an office to which Romney merely aspires at present (the way Obama aspired to the same office in 2008, with no foreign policy experience to commend his quest).
A little more modesty on Obama's part might have been indicated. However, that's not what Obama is about -- modesty. As we have long observed, he's chiefly about self-advertisement. The surprising element, when it comes, as it did this week, is how little there is to advertise.
Obama's implied boast to have made America safer by killing Osama bin Laden and announcing an end to the Afghan war walks wide of the larger question: what now about radical, America-hating Islam? What's the strategy? And could Mitt Romney do better? Good question, that last one. No president, or presidential candidate, makes America safer by speechifying. Rather, he decides what's needed then he does whatever that thing is.
Radical Islam is, for foreign policy purposes, the new Soviet Union -- a metaphor made more real by Iran's supposed (do you want to risk betting against the supposition?) pursuit of nuclear weapons. Obama and Romney both insist they mean to thwart the Iranians. That is clearly as it should be. The larger duty, at that, rests with Obama in terms of showing whether he is wrestling with a single, disconnected challenge to the country's peace or with a component of a bigger threat. Such as what? Such as maybe the radical Islamic world's rejection of the whole Western enterprise: free speech, the rule of law, human rights, human obligations, Christianity, Judaism, the whole panoply of normal life as understood by sentient Americans.
Do the radicals want to get us? Isn't it possible at least to suppose so on the basis of everyday observation? If so, what's our strategy?
Yes, yes, we're ending the war in Afghanistan. And what then? Write the whole place off, as the British, in a better day than this one, were able mostly to do? Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Mali (from how many American tongues does that latter name fall readily?): What about all these?
Israel. We get down to brass tacks here. Israel: Key American ally, bearing the norms and values of the much-maligned, much-hated West. What about Israel -- apart from "we've got its back" (as both presidential candidates have said)? Let us hope we have Israel's back and the Israelis ours. Yet what is the end game? Where is all this going?
The paltriness of the Obama presidency consists at least partly in dartings and flittings back and forth between crises in Syria, in Libya, in Iran, without signifying what the American interest might be in doing this or that. The ad hoc nature of Obamism abroad has seemingly more to do with thirst for the admiration of the Bush-haters, still a powerful fraternity, than with any sense of what it means to preside over a coherent foreign policy.
Here's what it means, or should: Us before anyone else-- us Americans. After that, our undoubted friends. The safety, the freedoms of the aforesaid matter most in this topsy-turvy world. If we long to hear our president say so, that might be because the experience would be so novel, so contrary to custom.