Let’s briefly review the American foreign-policy debates of the past year. Last August, President Obama declared that he would bomb Syria for defying his call to not use chemical weapons. Then, in a sharp about-face, he decided instead to work with Russia to dismantle the weapons, and was denounced as weak by hawkish critics. Obama’s supporters said he had done as well as he could have under the circumstances. Two months later, America and its allies struck an interim nuclear deal with Iran. Hawks called it appeasement. Obama’s supporters said it was as good as one could expect under the circumstances. Within hours of the deal, China claimed the right to monitor and possibly take military action against aircraft crossing a disputed area of the East China Sea. Hawks denounced Obama’s response as weak. The president’s supporters said it was as strong as possible under the circumstances. Then, in February, Russia began menacing Ukraine. Hawks called Obama’s response weak. His supporters said the president was doing all he reasonably could.
Each debate resembles the others, but occurs in splendid isolation. Today’s foreign-policy disputes rarely consider the way America’s response to one crisis might affect another. Adopt a tough stance on China’s air-defense zone, for instance, and Beijing is less likely to join the West in condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Severely punish Russia for that aggression, and Moscow is less likely to help America enforce sanctions against Iran. Take an ultra-hard line on Iran’s nuclear program, and Tehran is less likely to help broker an end to Syria’s civil war that the U.S. can live with. Instead of discussing each threat in isolation, America’s politicians and pundits should be debating which ones matter most. They should be prioritizing.