Failure on the Home Front

Published September 5, 2014

National Review Online

The clearest expression of a foreign-policy doctrine President Obama has articulated came in 2012 when he announced that the “tide of war in Afghanistan” had “turned” and that this was lucky because it was “now time to focus on nation building here at home.” Al-Qaeda, defined so narrowly as to exclude everyone save Osama bin Laden and his closest friends, was declared “defeated,” and a satisfied commander-in-chief confidently turned to domestic matters.

President Obama’s assumption that a vigorous foreign policy and a successful domestic agenda are in conflict is wrong. The U.S. experienced high rates of economic growth and development (with occasional recessions) throughout the post–World War II period while also maintaining the world’s largest military. In the 19th century, Great Britain’s citizens enjoyed among the best living standards in the world even as the nation maintained an empire and ensured freedom of navigation for all. Though many Americans now recoil from the role for themselves, the British served for most of the 19th century as the “world’s policeman.”

In his West Point speech, Obama mocked his predecessor for believing that “every problem” has a military solution. What he fails to see, even now, is that while there are risks in action, there are also risks in inaction. The choice to refrain from intervening in Syria was not safe or “smart.” It wasn’t like voting present in the Illinois senate. By declining to support the less radical factions opposing Assad, he permitted the most savage actors to dominate, and now they’ve spilled over Syria’s borders into Iraq and created a threat that even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”

The unifying theme in global events over the past several years is not, as Obama claims, “that the world has always been messy,” but that aggressors smell weakness. “Weakness,” President Reagan used to say, “is provocative.” China is asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere and bullying Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the U.S. Russia, having swallowed Crimea in one bite, is now chewing on the eastern half of Ukraine, providing sanctuary to Edward Snowden, and protecting Bashar Assad. Iran is asserting its “inalienable right” to enrich uranium and jeering that “America cannot do a damned thing.” And the Islamic State is raping, thieving, crucifying, and beheading its way to regional dominance, while promising to make America suffer on the home front.

So where is the nation building at home that this global retreat was designed to enable?

Though we are technically in a recovery, our anemic growth rate of 1.9 percent has left half of America believing that we are still in a recession. Unemployment remains at 6.2 percent and would be over 10 percent if the labor participation rate had returned to 2009 levels. For blacks, the unemployment rate is 17 percent. Wage growth has been very sluggish, and new business start-ups — the source of about 70 percent of new jobs — have been weak. The number of Americans receiving food assistance has spiked since 2008, from 28.2 million to 47.6 million.

The president has called income inequality the “defining challenge of our time.” Yet on his watch, the gap between rich and poor has increased. For the first time since the 1960s, the poverty rate has stayed above 15 percent for three straight years, while median household income has declined.

Government debt continues at record levels, and student loans have outpaced all other consumer debt except mortgages. The world’s highest corporate taxes encourage American companies to locate abroad. Seventy-six percent of American adults do not believe that their children will have as good a life as they do, and 60 percent believe that the country is in decline.

One of the aphorisms attributed to Lenin to excuse the massive crimes he committed on the way to building a socialist paradise was, “In order to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.” Human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky noted with bitterness that while he had seen many broken eggs, “I have not met anyone who tasted the omelet.”

Obama has turned his back on an explosive world to focus on nation building here at home. Where’s the omelet?

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2014 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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