Interview: 'Peace' in our time?
Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews AEI's Michael Rubin

Article Highlights

  • Whether through incompetence or design, Obama seems intent on destroying American prestige and influence.

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  • What is America’s leadership role in the world today?

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  • Someone needs to stand up for freedom and liberty, and that someone is not going to come from the UN or the EU bureaucracy

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Editor's Note: The following is an interview  that originally appeared on National Review Online about President Obama's speech on the crisis in Syria.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Was the president’s speech Tuesday night worth giving?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, it’s long past time President Obama shed light on his foreign policy and approach. The Syria debacle just highlights how confused Obama and his national security team appear. Alas, the speech last night did little to articulate vision, logic, and strategy.

KJL: Is Russia really keeping peace?
RUBIN: Consider it peace in our time, but nothing more. He may have averted immediate conflict, but at what cost? Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has a no-nonsense, zero-sum approach to international affairs. He does not believe in win-win situations; he wants to win and the United States to lose. With such goals, he couldn’t ask for a better partner than President Obama.

KJL: Why should we trust this?

RUBIN: We shouldn’t. We should never trust in international affairs. Ronald Reagan famously quipped that we should “trust but verify.” Alas, for Obama, it’s all trust and little verify

KJL: Has the U.S. been feckless or reckless in Syria?

RUBIN: A little of both. Setting redlines to score cheap rhetorical points only to abandon them hemorrhages American credibility. The gap between rhetoric and reality has always been a bipartisan problem, but Obama has taken it to a whole new level.

KJL: Should chemical weapons really be a red line?

RUBIN: Whether they should or not really is a moot point: Obama made them so. I understand the arguments that conventional weaponry has killed exponentially more Syrians, but woe to use if we abandon the limits to warfare that have been established over the past century. Conventional weaponry—when used by responsible governments—has become more deadly with time, but it is also more precise. Chemical weapons are imprecise by design. And if we abandon that redline, where do we draw a new one? With biological weapons? What about nuclear weapons? After all, why Americans think about nukes in terms of city-leveling bombs, Russia has a whole arsenal of small-scale, tactical nuclear weapons which essentially can do the work of a bunker-busting bomb.

KJL: What is the future for Syria?

RUBIN: Syria is gone. The Syrian civil war isn’t Libya- Part II, but rather Yugoslavia. The fighting we have seen has not been random but rather has strong overtones of ethnic and sectarian cleansing.

KJL: What if an intervention happens and makes life harder for Christians in Syria?
RUBIN: It’s not going to be an intervention that makes life harder for Syria’s Christians; it’s going to be the increasingly radical Syrian opposition. You can’t put lipstick on a pig, but if you put lipstick on al-Qaeda, you’d have the Free Syrian Army.

KJL: What happens to Israel?

RUBIN:  Israel simply wants quiet. The biggest danger now is that in the event of a strike, Syria retaliates against Israel (or Jordan, or Turkey). Don’t assume that the regime won’t shoot a missile into Tel Aviv because they fear Israeli retaliation: They know the Israelis would never gratuitously target civilians and they know that if Israel did respond in some way, the international community would condemn Israel, not Syria.

KJL: Have we forgotten about Egypt?

RUBIN: Yes, at our peril. But, if I can be self-serving for a second, in the forthcoming edition of National Review, I have a piece arguing that we should seize upon what happened in Egypt and launch a comprehensive strategy to “roll-back” the Muslim Brotherhood not only in Egypt, but in Gaza, Jordan, Tunisia, Sudan, Turkey, among the opposition in Syria, and wherever else they have sunk roots. We face an ideological threat as deleterious to American interests and Western liberalism as we once did with communism. So, go out and buy the next National Review, or at least subscribe to National Review digital.

KJL: What is America’s leadership role in the world today?

RUBIN: I’m writing this as I return for more than a week in Poland and Romania, doing some training for their military units heading into Afghanistan. There, people remain grateful to the United States for the leadership it showed during the Cold War. Someone needs to stand up for freedom and liberty, and that someone is not going to come from the United Nations or the European Union  bureaucracy, let alone Russia or China. Norman Podhoretz’s recent Wall Street Journal column should be a must-read for everyone.

We have gone through several generations of students inculcated from elementary school through college with moral equivalency and, frankly, an unbalanced antipathy toward the United States and its legacy in the world. When I give public speeches—most recently at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York—there’s always someone who suggests that there’s really not much difference between what happens in the Middle East with regard to political Islamists seeking to impose their will and what happens in the United States. (See, for example, minute 59). That’s just nonsense, and shows both progressives’ insularism and misunderstanding of just what a real dictatorship is like.

Those who embrace the United Nations and the notion of some amorphous regime of international law upheld by disinterested bureaucrats have absolutely no concept of just what American strength has achieved. If the United States was not the paramount power–let’s say Russia was—then the international system would be fundamentally different. There would be absolutely no debate let alone accountability about international law and norm. If China was an unchecked and dominant power, ethnic chauvinism would be the order of the day.

Whether through incompetence or design, Obama seems intent on destroying American prestige and influence. We can only hope that, just as Reagan succeeded Carter, a Cruz or Cotton or Ryan who personifies the American spirit and understands the importance of American strength and exceptionalism will lead our rebound.

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