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POLITICS: Campaigns

Is there a third way between war and disengagement in the Middle East?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Iraq,2016 Elections,National Security,Rand Paul,Campaigns,Terrorism,Libertarianism,Becket Adams,ISIS

Approval for President Obama's handling of foreign policy issues has cratered among U.S. voters, slumping to just 36 percent, according to Gallup, as his particular brand of leadership has garnered harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle.

Republican critics have accused Obama of dragging his feet on dealing with ISIS, a terrorist group that has captured large portions of Iraq and Syria.

Current and past crises in foreign countries, and the subsequent U.S. response to these events, have left the public dissatisfied with both the White House and the Republican Party. Obama was swept into office in 2008 on the promise that he would reverse the more aggressive — and what he deemed reckless — course set by the GOP when President George W. Bush was in office.

However, 44 percent of U.S. voters think America's relations with the Islamic world are actually worse than they were five years ago when Obama gave his highly anticipated speech in Cairo, according to at least one Rasmussen poll.

The survey, which was conducted Aug. 24-25, found that only 9 percent of voters think that things have improved since around 2009. This is a nine-point drop from September 2012, when U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, were attacked by terrorists and four Americans murdered.

Simply put, things have not improved, relations have deteriorated and Obama's approval on foreign policy issues continues to slide into negative territory, performing not much better than his predecessor.

And this is an important point to remember: Voters are apparently unhappy with the White House, yes, but they're not quite ready to jump on the bandwagon with Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who have called repeatedly for increased military action in the Middle East.

Americans support limited air strikes on terrorists in the Middle East, but they simply don't want to go back to war in that region.

This leaves us in an interesting position: U.S. voters are unhappy with the president dragging his feet on foreign policy issues but they also don't want to relive Bush-era engagement overseas.

This “pox of both houses” attitude could create an opening for a third option come 2016. This could be the opening libertarian-leaning candidates have been waiting for, especially considering the fact that they have long championed the issue of avoiding foreign engagements unless directly tied to U.S. national interests.

However, the closest thing libertarians currently have to a candidate with a chance of winning the GOP presidential primary is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and he is either silent on international developments or leans heavily in the direction of non-intervention, a sentiment that garners mixed to mild support. And it's hard to see what such a message would have to offer the subset of the GOP electorate that believes Obama's foreign policy has been too apathetic in the face of emerging threats.

Although it would be entertaining to see the libertarian wing of the GOP swoop in and make a sizable dent in the current political landscape, arguing for some supposed third way, Paul's recent silence on the rise of ISIS suggests that his stance on foreign policy may actually do more harm then good if he launches a bid for the White House.

"What would airstrikes accomplish?" the Kentucky senator asked in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in June. "We know that Iran is aiding the Iraqi government against ISIS. Do we want to, in effect, become Iran's air force? What's in this for Iran? Why should we choose a side, and if we do, who are we really helping?"

ISIS has since ravaged Iraq and Syria, slaughtering all who oppose it and creating a public outcry that has contributed to Obama's plunging approval numbers.

Meanwhile, Paul has said very little on ISIS since his op-ed, except to label former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a “war hawk."

So this is where we stand: We're at a point where U.S. voters aren't entirely behind the idea of total non-intervention, but they're definitely not begging for Congress to send U.S. troops back to the Middle East. They're unhappy with “fecklessness,” but they're also tired of “hawks.”

Americans want a third way, one that keeps America engaged, but without the sacrifice of "blood and treasure." Democrats are failing hard on this issue, the president struggling to keep his numbers afloat and voters are still wary of Republicans. The savvy 2016 candidate will have to find a way to thread the needle. As the world continues its collapse into chaos with Russia on the rise and ISIS on the move, a well-stated and thoughtful approach to foreign policy, one that addresses concerns over engagement and intervention, could make all the difference in the 2016 election.

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