WASHINGTON – The exhausting, occasionally horrifying experience of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars still makes it difficult for political figures to say obvious things about the past.
At the time, almost everyone supported the Afghanistan invasion – as close to a unanimous national decision as we’ve seen since Pearl Harbor. At the time, based on judgments by the intelligence community about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, a solid, bipartisan majority favored intervention in Iraq – a majority broad enough to include then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Yet just about no one would have supported the Iraq War if it had been known that Saddam had suspended his WMD programs. It was the prospect of proliferation that elevated Iraq above a containable regional threat.
So the proper answer for Republican candidates (no matter who their siblings might be) when asked if they would have invaded Iraq while lacking the main strategic justification to invade Iraq: Of course not.
But this historical hypothetical says almost nothing about the foreign policy views of a candidate. A better question: What are the lessons a president should draw from American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq?
President Barack Obama provided one answer. While accepting a central premise of the Bush Doctrine – the pre-emption of emerging terrorist threats – he regarded the task of occupation and reconstruction as a costly distraction. So he would wind down both wars as quickly as possible while avoiding new commitments. The threat of terrorism would be confronted technically, lethally, from afar, with drones and special operations forces, and by urging allies and proxies to step up and play a larger role. The killing of Osama bin Laden and (just days ago) of Abu Sayyaf are models.
But this understandable shift was used as an excuse for retrenchment and retreat. In leaving Iraq, Obama kept a political promise but did not secure hard-won gains. After helping change a regime in Libya, he had no adequate plan for the restoration of order. He was essentially a bystander for three years in Syria, while American proxies were liquidated (along with a portion of the civilian population) and while a terrorist homeland was founded. And he has allowed a naive belief in diplomacy to undermine his broader strategy – essentially conceding Iranian control of the direction and pace of events in the Middle East.
Obama has accepted a series of what Peter Feaver of Duke University calls “defeats of choice.” He has conducted his retrenchment in a manner that conveys weakness. Does this result from some changed, overarching conception of America’s role in the world, or some focus on a different region? More likely it is the sum total of risk-aversion, chronic indecision and an emphasis on domestic concerns.
There is plenty here for a Republican presidential candidate to criticize. But a Republican nominee will also need to demonstrate that he or she has learned lessons from America’s experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is obviously true that occupation and reconstruction proved tragically difficult and unsustainable. And Republican candidates should say this. They should set the bar for intervention high.
But they also need to describe how they would return to the strategic offensive within the boundaries of this recognition. For the foreseeable future, America will need to pre-empt threats from afar, by aggressively strengthening allies and proxies, and by employing advantages in air power, special operations, human intelligence gathering, digital surveillance and cyber warfare. This may well require “boots on the ground” to train and to target – but not American divisions in combat. This effort is unavoidably multilateral – requiring America to re-establish its standing as a reliable partner. Returning to the offensive will also involve the aggressive use of non-military elements of national power: economic engagement, development assistance and the offer of a compelling ideological alternative.
And America will need to take traditional balance-of-power concerns in Europe and the Middle East more seriously. The Obama administration apparently believes that diplomacy can change circumstances on the ground but it is usually circumstances on the ground that set the limits of diplomacy. While America talks about cooperating with Iran toward a more stabilized Middle East, Iran is busy destabilizing the Middle East and filling a regional vacuum of leadership. So any cooperation will be based on a coalition of forces that favors Iran and enshrines its expanding influence.
A serious Republican foreign policy will make this case: The alternative to invasion and occupation is not retreat; it is the determined exercise of power at a distance.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.