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Why Must Our Foreign Policy Debate Be Controlled By The Extremes?

One can acknowledge ISIS is a global threat without claiming Dick Cheney was right about everything. We need more middle ground on foreign policy.


A CNN poll finds that the majority of Americans are alarmed by ISIS, the Islamist group gaining ground in Iraq and Syria. editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie says everyone needs to calm down. What’s a little beheading in the course of massive territorial expansion, after all? “Why We Shouldn’t Be Scared of ISIS: Threat Inflation and Our Next Dumb War,” is his argument for why ISIS is no big deal and nothing to get in a tizzy about. Similar commentary can be found among other people who frequently oppose intervening in other country’s affairs.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Wall Street Journal published the editorial “Dick Cheney Is Still Right.” It’s sort of what we’ve come to expect from the never-admit-you-were-grievously-wrong, never-let-them-see-you-sweat bellicose right. Of course the rise of a terrorist group in the vacuum left by the Iraq War vindicates Dick Cheney! What other possible explanation could there be for the mess we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria right now!

And then you have President Barack Obama ping-ponging back and forth between these extremes, moving from dismissing ISIS as the JV squad to bombing them and calling them the worst thing he knows how to say: folks who are on the wrong side of history. (Yes, that left them quaking in their boots, I’m sure.)

Meanwhile, many in the media and at these ends of the spectrum remain utterly confused at how people can be both war weary and for striking ISIS. One good look at what actual people who are reluctant to invade countries but also openly considering it in the current case is found in Philip Rucker’s Washington Post piece: “In New Hampshire, war weariness hardens into resolve for strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Most voters interviewed here said the United States should begin airstrikes in Syria and continue them in Iraq, where Obama has authorized limited action over the past month. Many voters sharply criticized Obama’s leadership because they believe he has not been decisive enough in setting the military’s course. “I don’t think he’s showing any leadership,” said Scott LaClair, 44, a Republican and flight attendant from Nashua. “The United States looks as weak as it’s ever been in history.” But voters also voiced deep uneasiness with military action, even as they said they had concluded that it is necessary. “It’s such a repugnant ideology, an evil ideology,” said Jerry Han­aver, 65, a Democrat and retired federal housing worker in Bedford, referring to the Islamic State’s doctrine. “If war is truly needed and warranted, then being weary of it is not a reason not to go into it.”

The only reason so many are confused by such voters is because the foreign policy conversation in Washington is so out-of-touch with typical American instincts.

Yes, the debate here is dominated by the “We must intervene across the globe and spread democracy” crowd and the “these global threats are always overrated” crowd. What’s worse is that these two sides yell at each other and call each other crazy (an old problem going back to at least Aristotle and Plato), leading to very little compromise and thoughtful foreign policy approaches. Add to all this that many players in this debate seek to score political points and go for the win rather than make a compelling and unifying case based on our national interests.

Sadly, we don’t have many inspirational voices right now, much less an executive, who discuss and communicate a coherent foreign policy based primarily on our national interest. We need to define what our interests are and communicate their importance. Without clear communication both internally and externally, nobody knows what’s important and foreign countries may be mightily confused about how far they can push us. The result is frequently a sloppy approach where politicians do what they can without the American public weighing in.

All this to say that those of us who don’t tend to either extreme are poorly served by so much of the media and so many of our politicians being on either end of the spectrum. Those of us who are reluctant to nation-build in other countries, not just because it tends not to work very well but also because it’s so frequently outside our interests, aren’t naive about how bad the world is or how much of a threat some groups and countries pose.

With the full acknowledgement that everything’s a mess and at least partly a mess because of how we’ve managed our foreign involvement through recent presidencies … What our obscured but prevalent voices would say is that we’d like our foreign policy approach to be that we demand the right to live in peace with no interference from the rest of the world. And we enforce it. There’s still plenty of room for debate about what constitutes interference and what makes for a serious threat here, but there’s also a lot of room for working together to fight the bad guys who interfere with our peace.

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