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Moving toward reason

3/25/2016, 1 a.m.
As President Obama counts down his last month in office amid the raucous babble of the Republican presidential debate, people ...

Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

As President Obama counts down his last month in office amid the raucous babble of the Republican presidential debate, people are beginning to realize how much we will miss his leadership. He has served with dignity and grace, increasingly rare attributes in American politics. His family has exhibited the values that Americans embrace. He has brought the economy back from the freefall he inherited.

Republicans, of course, scorn all things Obama, with particular emphasis on his foreign policy. They argue that he has destroyed our nation’s credibility, gutted our military and fostered the spread of terror. The din covers the emptiness of the argument.

In reality, President Obama’s foreign policy will be remembered as making a start toward reason. His record, of course, is complex. The president has enjoyed some remarkable successes — taking out Osama bin Laden, traducing al-Qaida, forging a nuclear deal with Iran and normalizing relations with Cuba and thus with other neighbors across the hemisphere.

He also was met with frustrations. He was unable to extract us from Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria and Libya. He has failed to close Guantanamo. He also has asserted, dangerously, unprecedented executive prerogatives in the use of drones for assassination, the hunting of whistle-blowers, mass surveillance and more.

But President Obama’s biggest legacy is his effort to turn America away from the interventionist appetites of both the neo-conservatives and the “indispensable nation” liberal activists. In a remarkable set of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, President Obama argues that while the United States must lead, it cannot police the world. In his view, we must be both “hardheaded” and “big hearted.” We have to be clear about our real security concerns, learn to pick our spots and not allow ourselves to be dragged into every civil war or humanitarian crisis.

The president is clear — and clearly right — on the priority of threats facing the United States. Despite the popular terrors about terror, he understands that the Islamic State is not an existential threat to the United States. In contrast, climate change potentially threatens the world if we don’t act to counter it.

Similarly, the president argues that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to U.S. interests, particularly with our increasing energy independence. The U.S.-China relationship, in contrast, is the “most critical.” Sustaining a peaceful rise of China that will make it a partner in securing international order is far more important than the civil wars in the Middle East.

President Obama believes, against the clamor of an interventionist foreign policy establishment, that overextension in the Middle East is far more destructive than restraint. As his adviser Ben Rhodes summarizes, the president’s view is that “overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy and harm our ability to look for other opportunities and deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons unrelated to our national-security interest.”

According to Mr. Goldberg, President Obama also sees Russia as weak, but recognises it has direct security concerns about Ukraine and Georgia on its border. As President Obama says, the United States is not going to war over Ukraine. Russia is prepared to do that. Mexico has had to learn to live with the United States; Ukraine similarly has to learn to live with Russia.

President Obama has made mistakes, as any president does. But he has come to understand the limits of U.S. power to direct global events, even as he realizes the importance of U.S. leadership to force global action. He calls on us to understand our limits and to set real priorities.

Listen to the posturing and the bloviating of the Republican contenders for the presidency. It doesn’t take long to realize that how much we should value the steps that President Obama has taken toward reason.

The writer is founder and president of the National Rainbow PUSH Coalition.