Opinion

Jim Webb is the only presidential candidate talking sense on foreign policy

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the guy who fought in Vietnam has a different perspective on foreign affairs

"Oh, the guy that bragged about killing the Vietnamese soldier who threw a grenade at him?"

That will be the average response to the name Jim Webb after the first Democratic debate. And that's too bad, because Webb gave us the first clear glimpses of sanity on foreign policy in the 2016 campaign.

Anderson Cooper confronted Webb with his statement that he never would have used military force in Libya, and that the subsequent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was "inevitable." Webb replied this way:

There are three strategic failings that have allowed this to occur. The first was the invasion of Iraq, which destabilized ethnic elements in Iraq and empowered Iran. The second was the Arab Spring, which created huge vacuums in Libya and in Syria that allowed terrorist movements to move in there. And the third was the recent deal allowing Iran to move forward and eventually acquire a nuclear weapon, which sent bad signals, bad body language into the region about whether we are acquiescing in Iran becoming a stronger piece of the formula in that part of the world. [The Washington Post]

Bang on. Webb's second political life as a Democrat (he switched to the other side during the Reagan administration) began with his opposition to the Iraq War. His point about the Arab Spring is even stronger, and a bold critique of the foreign policy thinking that prevails in both parties. The Arab Spring, a label attached to a series of revolutions across the Middle East, received considerable rhetorical and diplomatic support from the Obama administration, particularly from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And in the case of Libya, Clinton was the leading advocate of pursuing regime change on the cheap. But when Moammar Gadhafi fell from power, it turned out that the various rebel groups opposing him included jihadis. Now ISIS has established itself in Libya. The country has rival governments, and oil production has fallen to historic lows. Libya is in tatters, exacerbating a refugee crisis that threatens the political friendships and freedom of movement that sustain the European Union.

And, as Webb hastened to remind us all later, the conflict in Libya involved no tangible American interests: "We had no treaties at risk. We had no Americans at risk. There was no threat of attack or imminent attack."

How did Hillary Clinton respond on the question of Libya? "Well, let's remember what was going on. We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands," she began. Clinton then reiterated that European allies were on board with the action, and that American commitments were minimal. Then she wrapped it all up this way: "And the Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy."

If you didn't notice, except for the emphasis on America's minimal commitment, Clinton's response is almost word for word the George W. Bush answer on why the U.S. was justified in invading Iraq. There was a thug, everyone agreed it would be nice to be rid of him, and we had elections. Some good people ran for office. What, you wanted the American interest to be served too, hippie?

It's been a tough season for anyone looking for sanity in the area of foreign affairs. No one will even ask a candidate of either party about the United States' involvement in and support of Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Several of the leading foreign policy voices in the Republican field are touting a plan for committing U.S. ground troops to Syria, and defeating every side of a three-way civil war there. Chris Christie's bid to become relevant this week involved promising to shoot down Russian warplanes over Syria.

A political class that is ignorant about foreign policy is probably just one of the unfortunate side effects of living in the world's most powerful nation, particularly one in which most politicians have never fired a shot in anger while serving in the military. In America, a few nerds will castigate you in their columns if you make foreign policy mistakes. At worst, your party could temporarily lose its congressional majority. A politician in a smaller nation knows that a bad foreign policy decision may very well end with him kicking helplessly at the end of a rope.

Perhaps that is why the one man who has said anything sensible on the topic is the former Marine who once had a grenade tossed at him in a misbegotten war.

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