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Mr. President: Stay Tough Enough to Resist The War Hawks

September 1, 2014

By Joe Rothstein

Everyone in favor of sending U.S. troops back into Iraq (and maybe Syria, too) please raise your hands.

Hmmm. Not many of you.

Okay, All in favor of sending U.S. troops to the Ukraine to fight the Russians?

How about into Libya to stop that civil war?


Gee. Not many hands raised out there.

One last question. Do you agree that when it comes to managing U.S. foreign policy President Obama isn’t tough enough?

Wow. Finally a question most Americans agree with.

So let’s review.

In latest polls only 15% of Americans favor sending ground troops to fight the latest Islamic terrorist threat spanning Iraq and Syria, and only 30% favor even the more modest action of sending troops to help train and advise the Iraqi army.

Fighting the Russians over the Ukraine, intervening in Middle East civil wars, reversing our troop withdrawal from Afghanistan---all are total non-starters with the U.S. public.

But 54% think the President isn’t tough enough in combating national security threats.

What meaning do we draw from all of this? That Obama should have been able to defuse Islamic militancy despite its fertilization by Syria's Assad and Turkey's President Erdogan and all the missteps by Iraq's Maliki? That Obama should have been able to cow Putin into subservience to U.S. foreign policy objectives?

On this latter point, if John McCain had been elected President in 2008 he might have sent troops to Georgia to stop the Russian military action there. McCain said at the time “We’re all Georgians now.” Would Americans have cheered on a President McCain who was “tougher?” Would they cheer on President Obama if he confronted Putin militarily now?

Obama’s also taken a lot of grief for not intervening militarily in the Syrian civil war. Really? Another U.S. military intervention in an Arab conflict? Since the turn of the century the U.S. has fought in Afghanistan and Iraq with ground troops, helped overthrow Gadhafi in Libya with missiles from the air and sea, killed Islamic militants and many non-combatants with drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and helped Israel fend off rockets fired from Lebanon and Gaza. In the process we’ve inspired and armed countless anti-American militants who dwarf the numbers organized by al Qaeda.

Do we see a pattern here? Something along these lines: the more we fight the more enemies we create?

Despite that recent costly history, the war drums are beating more loudly than ever these days on the neo-con political right wing. There’s no shortage of advice pouring into the White House and the media about how we need to be “tougher.” Senator Ted Cruz told a cheering crowd of true believers the other day that “we should bomb the Islamists back into the stone age.” I’m sure that went over big with the world’s billion Muslims.

Let’s hope that the President remains tough enough to resist the war hawks. That alternative is a path he seems to be following, one that’s not as dangerous and dramatic as landing the Marines on the Tigris or the Black Sea, but over time should be more effective.

We saw it in the strategic use of air power to help the Kurds, the political intervention in Baghdad to depose Maliki, coordination with Egypt to bring an end to the Israeli-Hamas conflict, and the increasingly tough sanctions imposed against Russia for its continuing Ukrainian aggression.

About those sanctions. Russia’s state banks are now excluded from raising long-term loans in the EU. Arms, energy and other deals are banned, senior Russian officials and oligarchs no longer can travel to the West and their assets have been frozen.

These things don’t create dramatic footage but have real significance in a nation that depends heavily on foreign trade, and with people whose investments are parked worldwide. Over time, sanctions will have a negative and potentially destabilizing impact on the Russian economy, reaching down into most businesses and households.

For years the bomb-Iran-now cheer leaders pooh poohed the importance of sanctions against that country. But clearly the economic distress they caused resulted in the election of a more moderate regime and set the table for negotiations that could resolve nuclear issues without bombs or bodies.

It’s worth noting that the EU’s sanctions against Russia are even tougher than the ones imposed by the U.S. They should be. Economic activity is much greater between the EU and Russia and the sanctions will bite harder. But the U.S. has led this coalition of resistance, and the sanctions would be hollow without U.S. leadership and participation.

The fact is, this is not a bi-polar world, with the U.S. on one side and all the world’s dangerous conflicts on the other. Dozens of other nations share our security interests and rightly should be participants in their own defense. For decades the U.S. carried almost the entirety of the burden for the defense of the free world, particularly in its confrontation with an aggressive Soviet Union. Those days are over. We have partners now, now wards.

During the 2000 presidential election campaign Condoleezza Rice, destined to manage U.S. foreign policy for George W. Bush, frequently said the U.S. can’t be 9-1-1 for the world. We can’t and we should not be world’s first and only responder to trouble.

Unfortunately, President George W. Bush didn’t heed that advice. President Barack Obama should, and is.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is a political strategist and media producer who worked in more than 200 campaigns for political office and political causes. He also has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA. Mr. Rothstein is the author of award-winning political thrillers, "The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her," and "The Salvation Project."