Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, foreign and defense policies have been far from his highest priorities. Instead, as he said explicitly in 2008, Obama is seeking to “fundamentally transform” America. This domestic focus has driven national security to the margins, except when circumstances made it essentially impossible to avoid.
Obama’s approach is wrong for many reasons, not least because of the inextricable relationship between domestic and foreign policy. Obama and virtually his entire party fail to grasp that America’s way of life, and certainly a robust economy, must rest on a strong U.S. presence internationally. And, conversely, a strong American international presence inevitably rests on a vibrant economy, society and polity at home.
Ironically, unwitting Republicans empowered Obama’s de-emphasis of national-security issues. Perhaps because of their own unfamiliarity with foreign threats and challenges, perhaps guided by the conventional wisdom that international affairs were not relevant to “average” voters, perhaps because they didn’t grasp the domestic-international nexus, Republicans allowed Obama to push national security off the political radar screen.
Everything we have seen over the last year confirms my view that the American people are now way out ahead of their leaders on the centrality of national security issues.
Not surprisingly, political commentators and operatives were entirely comfortable with foreign and defense policy sliding into oblivion. Too often unschooled in the substance of national-security issues, and not appreciating how politically crucial they have actually been over the last century, the chattering classes were accomplices in consigning international affairs to the ash heap of politics.
Two factors, however, have combined to shatter this blithe consensus. Entirely predictably, the external world turned out to be far more threatening and complex than Obama ever dreamed.
Terrorism has neither subsided nor been defeated: it has grown menacingly in the form of ISIS, Boko Haram, the resurgent Taliban and even a resilient Al Qaeda. The nuclear-proliferation threat has expanded, with Iran verging on deliverable nuclear weapons, and North Korea, in recent Chinese estimates no less, a graver menace than our own intelligence predicted.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is changing international boundaries on the European continent by military force, something we vowed in 1945 would never happen again. China’s assertive, near-belligerent territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, combined with its decades-long military expansion and modernization, pose dangers in Asia unprecedented in the post-Cold War era.
And this is just a partial list.
In response, the common-sense, inherently pragmatic American people have asserted themselves. Voters understand they are not going to become experts on the intricacies of foreign affairs, but instead delegate that responsibility to political leaders in Washington. When these leaders do not address the citizenry about foreign threats and how to confront them, pragmatic Americans assume logically (if incorrectly) the dangers are insignificant. When international reality intrudes, however, as it inevitably does, Americans react swiftly, demanding to know why their leaders have failed to protect the country.
We saw this phenomenon in the 2014 elections when ISIS began beheading Americans, when Iran’s nuclear program clearly emerged as a mortal threat despite twelve years of failed negotiations, and when the Ebola scare raised the horrors of biological-weapons threats.
Since last November, the international environment has only deteriorated further with more ISIS beheadings, the Paris and Copenhagen attacks, and now the foiled assault by American jihadis in Garland, Texas.
My personal response to Obama’s de-emphasis of national security was to consider running for president in 2012, to help push national security back into the center of our national political debate. Although the idea occurred to me too late to implement it effectively, I subsequently formed a PAC and SuperPAC to assist Congressional candidates who supported a robust American foreign policy. And in this cycle, I again seriously contemplated running for president.
While I have concluded it is simply not feasible for someone in my circumstances to mount an effective presidential campaign, everything we have seen over the last year confirms my view that the American people are now way out ahead of their leaders on the centrality of national-security issues. Those “average” citizens rightly perceived the growing storm clouds, even if ideologues like Obama and his Democratic cadres, uninterested political officeholders (like too many Republicans), or uninformed media analysts and operatives did not.
The evidence is now unarguable that foreign and defense policy will be a (perhaps the) critical issue in the 2016 campaign. And while I will not be running myself, the PAC, SuperPAC, and a new 501 (c)(4) foundation I have formed will continue and expand their activity. We will work to foster the voters’ palpable desire for strong international leadership, and the critical need to keep our country and its people, not to mention our friends and allies globally, free and secure.
In fact, it will be politicians in both parties who fail to heed this upsurge of concern about America’s place in the world who will find themselves on the ash heap of politics.
John Bolton was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 through 2006. He is currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Fox News contributor