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Column: A National Security Primer for Obama

The Obama administration has shown an uncanny ability to repeat foreign policy errors, apparently oblivious to our experience in the post-9/11 world.

You would think by now they would have learned the drill. For example: Where central authority collapses, jihadists opportunistically rush in. This was true in Iraq, Mali, Libya and Syria. Yet nowhere along the way did the administration seem to grasp this and take steps to break up this dangerous cycle (e.g. by acting more decisively in Syria) or even to protect Americans (e.g. Libya).

By now they should have learned at least five of the basics of National Security 101:

1. In the Middle East, elections are not the key to democracy. Respect for the secular rule of law, expanded civil liberties and protection for minorities should be the indicators as to whether a country is moving forward (e.g. Morocco) or backward. To that end, monarchies with political legitimacy that are willing to reform (e.g. Jordan) stand a better chance than tin-pot dictators of creating a functional, stable country.

2. We have to use what leverage we have. In some cases, that means turning off or limiting aid. In some instances, it requires both private and public persuasion.

As Hoover Institute fellow Kori Schake put it: “Rather than skirt Congress, the administration should be working with it to strengthen restrictions — it can then have the pleasure of blaming Congress, a strategy that historically works to great success in trade talks.”

3. Our adversaries are not going to help us. To a degree few imagined, the administration has repeatedly (e.g. Hillary Clinton’s Russian reset, John Kerry’s desire for a “special relationship” with China, Obama’s engagement with the mullahs) deluded itself into thinking we can talk our foes out of their own interests and/or appeal to some greater good (e.g. stopping genocide in Syria, completely isolating Iran). This is nonsense and sets us up for diplomatic dead ends (for which the administration has been endemically unprepared).

4. Economics matter as much as constitutions. As was noted by former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim: “Most people, in the Third World and indeed everywhere, assign a higher priority to stability, safety, the ability to earn one’s living and provide for one’s family, education and a better future for one’s children, and, not least, the right to worship as one pleases.” A U.S. foreign policy that obsesses with the outward trappings of democracy to the detriment of a functioning economy will be ineffective.

5. While the president likes to fancy himself a foreign policy wizard, recent events suggest he’s in over his head or inattentive (or both). His inclination to allow partisan domestic concerns to swamp national security analysis and policymaking has been disastrous, causing us to ignore dangers and retrench in the face of challenges. We would be on more solid ground if the president at least would hire highly competent people willing to give the president bad news, not passive, inept figures.

There are dozens of more truisms (e.g., effective foreign policy requires a robust military capability, stick by your friends), but no matter how mundane and obvious, they seem never have to permeated the Oval Office echo chamber. That is the president’s fault, but we all live with the consequences.

Jennifer Rubin blogs for The Washington Post.