Bad actors around the globe keep getting confused about the calendar, and it falls to the Obama administration to set them straight. The Russians, Secretary of State John Kerry protested back in March, have forgotten what century we’re living in: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.” Kerry was echoing President Obama’s observation that by seizing Crimea, Russian president Putin was putting himself “on the wrong side of history.”
It’s a theme this president sounded in his first inaugural address, warning that “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” are “on the wrong side of history . . . ” He returned to it in his remarks (bracketed by golf outings) about the horrific murder of James Foley. After describing just how barbaric the Islamic State terrorists are, Obama offered the following complacent analysis: “And people like this ultimately fail. They fail, because the future is won by those who build and not destroy and the world is shaped . . . by the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed [Foley] . . . One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.”
James Foley’s family might not agree. Nor would the Yazidis, or the hundreds of thousands of Syrians murdered by gas and artillery and barrel bombs, or the 100,000 Bosnians and others killed in the heart of Europe in the late 20th century, or the 1 million Rwandans killed in 1994, or the roughly 2 million Cambodians massacred between 1975 and 1979. “History” in all cases looked on impassively.
In Obama’s telling, “history” is making American might unnecessary because the “tide of war is receding.” Others believe that wars are won or lost. They don’t ebb and flow like oceans.
In his Martha’s Vineyard remarks, the president said “Let’s be clear about ISIL,” and he itemized some of its depredations including torture, rape, and slavery. He might have added crucifixions, beheadings, and burial alive. He might also have admitted that despite his boasts that “core al-Qaeda” has been decimated, the Islamic State is al-Qaeda reborn.
Yet aside from an air campaign (which is good as far it goes), the president again seems ready to permit a benevolent “History” to manage events. “Governments and peoples across the Middle East” will unite to “extract this cancer,” he predicted.
That has never been true. When have the nations of the Middle East ever joined forces against an evil government or movement? Even the Europeans proved utterly feckless at intervening in the Bosnia genocide. Only with American leadership did the killing come to an end.
The peace of the post–World War II world was kept, to the degree it was, by American arms and American world leadership. Obama’s abandonment of an American role in Iraq left the space into which the Islamic State has moved. Only American leadership and engagement can defeat the Islamic State. But that will require vigorous presidential leadership, not wan invocations of “History’s” trajectory.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2014 Creators Syndicate, Inc.