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No, we can't stay off the world stage

Saturday, August 9, 2014 - 12:01 am

Perhaps President Obama got tired of being called passive and disengaged on foreign policy, accused of “leading from behind” while the world crumbles. That sort of criticism crescendoed this week.

Or maybe the administration decided to re-explore our national interest instead of continuing the futile effort to make the world love us.

Something made the president act this week. After making “getting out of Iraq” a centerpiece of his foreign policy, he finally decided to go back in, sort of. He announced two operations, “targeted airstrikes” to protect American personnel in the path of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria forces, and air drops of food and water for the thousands of Yazidi civilians trapped by ISIS on a mountain.

It was a reminder of something almost universally accepted about America’s engagement with the world but lately forgotten about: Two conditions must be met for the United States to intervene somewhere.

The first is that there must be a humanitarian crisis, and conditions in Iraq certainly qualify. But that isn’t enough. There are crises all over the world, and we can’t be everywhere. That leads to the second condition: Our interests must be threatened by the crisis.

The president didn’t elaborate on that point as much as he did on the need for us to relieve suffering, but it was there in his remarks. The establishment of a terrorist-run state in the Mideast is about as direct a threat to our national security as one can imagine.

But “the national interest” is a pesky little thing. Once you get a glimpse of it, you can see it everywhere, from the borders of Ukraine to the Gaza strip. How far should we be willing to go to protect our interests? When and under what conditions is force appropriate? Which friends do we court to ally with against which enemies? Do we have a goal?

Having that debate requires a level of engagement with the world that his administration doesn’t have. Perhaps we can have it with the next president.