Ross Douthat asks of his party's presidential candidates what he himself is unable to do: provide a coherent alternative to Obama's foreign policies, specifically his military interventions or quasi-interventions. "In theater after theater, this administration has us in just far enough to shape events," he writes, "but without a plan to win it."
"Winning" remains undefined in Douthat's piece. It's a nostalgic, terminological 21st-century holdover from that American century in which our enemies were (usually) easily defined; advance on clearly delineated fronts, crush their forces, take their cities, occupy their villages and press them to sue for peace. Presto, the war is won. Should President Obama seriously suggest that this could be done in, say, Syria, the best he would get from informed strategic minds is, "Good night, and good luck."
That said, Douthat seems to believe The Answer Is Out There — or, at the very least, that his party's candidates should offer one. On the latter, we're in accord. But, complains Douthat:
There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.
Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once. But it isn’t exactly clear what they would do, because their critique of Obama scores points without acknowledging the real limits on American power — and the structural, and not just ideological, realities behind the decisions that he’s made.
The second paragraph is a peculiar one. Douthat's critique of Obama's policies is meant to score points without acknowledging limits on American power — immediately after which, he returns to the rhetoric of "winning":
There may be cases where America needs to fight to win, enemies that we need to actually defeat instead of managing. But there are also wars that shouldn’t be joined at all, and situations where a kind of frozen conflict really is the best out of our bad options. So the test facing this president’s would-be successors, the challenge that should be posed to them as candidates, is to tell us which kind of war is which.
I can't quite determine if Douthat knows, deep down, that Obama already has. Since he fails to explain what we'd do, for instance, with Damascus, Ar Raqqah, Aleppo and Homs, even if we could "win" them, I suspect he does.
Nonetheless I credit Douthat for his inward entreaty: that his party's candidates transcend their imprecise rants about "American-led victories" by laying out "clear strategic priorities" and telling us "exactly … what they would do." As for Douthat's pleading, all I can say is, Good night, and good luck.