Home inFocus The World Needs American Leadership

The World Needs American Leadership

Rob Portman

With instability, violence, and war breaking out around the globe and threats to America and our allies becoming more severe, the world we live in today seems more dangerous than at any time since 9/11. And yet, while these threats grow, the leadership we need to meet them seems to be shrinking.

Iran stalls in negotiations meant to halt its nuclear program that has already dragged on for years. Despite the platitudes of an Administration eager to make a deal, its march towards developing nuclear weapons continues.

ISIS, the group the President once naively referred to as the “JV team” of terrorist organizations, has now planted the black flag of Islamic terrorism across parts of Syria and Iraq, including in Mosul and Fallujah, cities American Marines gave their lives to liberate. Instability spreads throughout the Middle East, threatening to drag Libya and Yemen and other nations into further chaos.

Russian soldiers move freely through eastern Ukraine and insurgents using Russian equipment, trained by the Russian military, and led by Russian special forces continue to wage war on an American ally. While we all hoped a recent ceasefire would hold, all indications are that the Russian-backed insurgents are instead continuing their aggression.

Across Europe, in France, Denmark, and Belgium, innocent people are murdered, some for opposing terrorist aims, others for the simple fact that they are Jewish. These attacks are not random as was suggested by the Administration. They are designed to incite fear and to weaken our resolve to oppose Islamic terrorism wherever we find it.

We must not allow them to succeed, any more than we must stand silent in the face of Iranian threats and Russian aggression. But what we must do instead is take a long, hard look at how we got to this point of increasing violence and instability, and what we must do to address them.

America Must Lead

In my view, many of the problems we are seeing across the globe stem from a lack of effective leadership. Into that void, chaos ensues. The defining themes in the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy have been a preference for disengagement and an unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility of global leadership the way previous Presidents—both Republican and Democrat—have always done. As the Administration itself says, America has been leading from behind.

The President sometimes talks about the “arc of history” moving our way. But history does not move inexorably towards more justice and more peace and these “arcs” don’t just happen. People make them happen and leadership is the key.

When America is strong, when we stand unequivocally for freedom and justice and the right of all people to choose their own destiny, when we do not back down in the face of threats and intimidation, that is when we see a world that is more stable, less dangerous, and more free.

More wars, more conflicts, more threats to our security—these do not typically arise from American strength. They arise from American weakness.

When we look around the world, whether it is to Gaza, or Eastern Europe, or Syria, or Iraq, or Iran—the increase in violence and instability has coincided with a growing perception that the United States is either unwilling or unable to take a stand against threats to international security and stability. Addressing these complex challenges requires sustained and proactive American leadership and engagement.

The Centrality of the U.S.-Israel Alliance

At the forefront of that proactive American leadership in the Middle East must be our commitment to stand unequivocally with Israel. No other nation in the world would be expected to put up with tunnels into their cities, with rockets raining down on people’s homes.

I’ve made a few trips to Israel. I have met with her people. I’ve walked the streets of Sderot and seen the remains of the missiles that were targeted against innocents with hatred and an intent to kill and to maim. I’ve been to the bomb shelters, and the indoor, fortified playgrounds built so that children could have a chance to play without fear. I’ve spent time with an Iron Dome battery crew outside Ashkelon. The people of Israel want peace.

If Hamas and other terrorist groups laid down their arms tomorrow, a long-term peace would result. But if Israel surrendered to her enemies tomorrow, those enemies would still try to push Israel into the sea. That’s the reality in Israel. It’s time that the United States recognizes it.

Unfortunately, we know the biggest winner from the sense that this Administration’s support for Israel is wavering: Iran. Iran continues to stall on negotiations meant to end its nuclear weapons program. It continues to ask for more time, and the Administration continues to grant it. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to the United States to speak of the threat Iran poses to not only Israel but the world and the President acts as if he is too busy or too put out to even meet with him.

There is no greater demand for U.S. leadership than ensuring that Iran does not retain a nuclear capability and halting their continued march towards weaponization. If the Kirk-Menendez Iran Sanctions bill, of which I am an original cosponsor, was on the floor of the United States Senate today, I believe it would pass with over sixty votes. Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that Iran will not negotiate in good faith unless the United States is unequivocal in our commitment to ending the nuclear threat Iran poses. Recall that these are not new sanctions that would be imposed now—these are sanctions that would be imposed if the Iranians do not agree to halt their nuclear weapons program as required by the UN. They are leverage for the White House.

I have worked in two White Houses. Instead of fighting the re-imposition of sanctions if the Iranians aren’t serious, the Administration should use this, the only leverage point that has worked, to get the Iranians to the table, to try to achieve something real.

No Substitute for American Leadership

Now there are those who say that we can’t be the world’s policemen. I agree. We are more like the sheriff who gathers a posse of allies—an international coalition that will only form behind a leader. We are not a nation that seeks conflict, but one that loves peace. We are not empire builders—we seek only stability and prosperity for all. But make no mistake, this cancer of international instability won’t go away if we ignore it, or if we call it by a different name, any more than a cancer of the body might. It will grow and it will spread.

If we do not confront the brutality of ISIS, of radical Islam, it will not be contained within the borders of Iraq and Syria. It will grow in strength and in violence, and one day, perhaps one day not too far in the future, it will strike here, on our shores.

If we do not confront Russian aggression in Ukraine, if we don’t even provide the brave people of Ukraine the equipment and the training that the President has already promised, that aggression will not stop in Donetsk, any more than it stopped in Crimea. All of Eastern Europe will fall under a shadow.

And if we do not confront Iran, if we continue to negotiate from weakness instead of strength, then Iran will develop a nuclear weapon. And then the entire international order, the very existence of Israel, and millions of lives will be in danger.

The leadership to meet these challenges must come from the top. Only the President can begin to have America lead, from the front, in these conflicts. Only the President can recommit to a defense and foreign policy that ensures America is strong and resolute in standing unequivocally in support of our allies.

America needs a detailed strategy to destroy ISIS, one that includes economic and diplomatic leverage, but also leaves all the options on the table our military may need to finish the job and end this threat, while acknowledging that ISIS is only the latest iteration of radical Islam. It won’t be the last, and when we defeat it, we cannot declare premature victory as the Administration did in Iraq or against al Qaeda.

America must take action in Europe to create a comprehensive, proactive approach that strengthens NATO, deters Russian aggression, and gives Ukraine and other Eastern European countries the political, economic, and military support they need to maintain their independence. We cannot allow these short-lived ceasefires to lull us into a sense of complacency. Moscow has ambitions that extend beyond Donetsk and, indeed, beyond Ukraine. If President Putin doubts our willingness to oppose those ambitions, the threat of instability only increases.

And President Obama must take steps to repair the damaged relationship with Israel, and declare that anything short of Iranian nuclear disarmament is unacceptable. Now is not the time to hold grudges or play politics. Stopping Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon is not just of utmost importance for Israel, but for the United States and the world.

That means more than saying the right thing when it comes to Israel; we must also act on our words. I recently co-authored the United States-Israel Trade Enhancement Act of 2015. It has a very simple purpose. It says that the United States will no longer stand by as those who wish to see Israel destroyed throw up trade barriers meant to isolate and weaken our strongest ally in the Middle East. We should pass it and the President should sign it.

A commitment to American global leadership is not a Republican idea or Democratic idea. It is what presidents of both parties have displayed. We need that kind of leadership again. ISIS, Vladimir Putin, the mullahs of Iran, we must ensure that their moment is over. The future does not belong to bigotry and hate, but to the freedom-loving people of the world. And the United States must lead the way.

Senator Rob Portman is a Republican from Ohio. He sits on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Finance, and Budget committees.