New York Post - - POST OPINION - JOSEPH I. LIEBER­MAN Joseph I. Lieber­man rep­re­sented Con­necti­cut in the Se­nate from 1989 to 2013. © 2016, The Wash­ing­ton Post

FOR more than 50 years, na­tional­se­cu­rity lead­ers have gath­ered an­nu­ally at the Mu­nich Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence, a con­clave es­tab­lished dur­ing the depths of the Cold War as a meet­ing place for the Western al­lies stand­ing against the Com­mu­nist threat.

I have been priv­i­leged to at­tend al­most half of th­ese meet­ings — from the era of hope and ex­cite­ment that fol­lowed the Soviet col­lapse in the early 1990s through the di­vi­sive and dif­fi­cult wars of the post­9/11 decade — but none has been as trou­bling as the one held this month.

That is be­cause the world has never seemed as dan­ger­ous and lead­er­less as it does now. Only the ex­trem­ists and bul­lies act boldly, and, there­fore, they have seized the ini­tia­tive. It is a mo­ment in his­tory that evokes the haunt­ing words of W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst are full of pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity.”

There is more in­sta­bil­ity in the world to­day than at any time since the end of World War II. The threats come from em­bold­ened ex­pan­sion­ist pow­ers such as Iran, Rus­sia and China, and also ter­ror­ist ag­gres­sors such as the Is­lamic State and al Qaeda. In short, the en­e­mies of free­dom are on the march.

At the same time, the United States — which as­sumed global lead­er­ship af­ter World War II to pro­tect our do­mes­tic se­cu­rity, pros­per­ity and free­dom — has cho­sen this mo­ment to be­come more pas­sive in the world.

The ab­sence of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship has cer­tainly not caused all the in­sta­bil­ity, but it has en­cour­aged and ex­ac­er­bated it.

For ex­am­ple, while the threat of vi­o­lent Is­lamist ex­trem­ism has ex­isted for sev­eral decades, the mil­i­tary and political dis­en­gage­ment of the United States from Iraq af­ter the suc­cess of the surge and our fail­ure to in­ter­vene to stop the slaugh­ter in Syria have con­spired to cre­ate a vac­uum in the heart of the Middle East.

This vac­uum has been ex­ploited by the re­gion’s most dan­ger­ous anti­Amer­i­can forces: to­tal­i­tar­ian Sunni fa­nat­ics and the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic of Iran.

The re­sult is the cre­ation of a ter­ror­ist sanc­tu­ary of un­prece­dented scale and Ira­nian dom­i­na­tion over mul­ti­ple Arab cap­i­tals.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has also moved to ex­ploit the vac­uum, first by seiz­ing Crimea and mov­ing into east­ern Ukraine in 2014. The United States re­acted to that breach of world or­der with words of out­rage and some sanc­tions against Moscow, but also by re­fus­ing to give Ukraini­ans the de­fen­sive weapons that might im­pose a heav­ier mil­i­tary cost on Rus­sia for its ad­ven­tur­ism. Rather than de­ter­ring Rus­sia from fur­ther ag­gres­sion, our hes­i­ta­tion in Ukraine sig­naled to the Krem­lin that the United States it­self could be de­terred when Rus­sia acted boldly and de­ci­sively. Putin soon ex­tended this les­son to Syria, where he dis­patched his forces last year in or­der to turn the tide of war in fa­vor of a weak­en­ing Bashar alAs­sad. De­spite pre­dic­tions of “quag­mire,” that is pre­cisely what Rus­sia’s in­ter­ven­tion has achieved — while re­es­tab­lish­ing Moscow as a force to be reck­oned with in yet an­other vi­tal re­gion.

The US re­sponse? To ask for Putin’s help in ex­tin­guish­ing fires that he him­self has been feed­ing.

This fits a broader pat­tern. In too many places in re­cent years, the United States has treated its ad­ver­saries as es­sen­tial part­ners to be courted, while dis­miss­ing or den­i­grat­ing its his­toric al­lies and part­ners as in­con­ve­niences or ob­sta­cles to peace.

In Mu­nich this month, the United States rat­i­fied its di­min­ished role by reach­ing an agree­ment on Syria that el­e­vates the stand­ing of Rus­sia, pres­sures the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion and stands lit­tle chance of end­ing the cam­paign of in­dis­crim­i­nate vi­o­lence be­ing waged on be­half of the As­sad regime against the long­suf­fer­ing Syr­ian peo­ple. Al­most no one in Mu­nich thought it would work.

At the end of the con­fer­ence, I shared th­ese fears about the state of the world with an Arab diplo­mat. “I agree,” he replied, “and when we re­turn to Mu­nich next Fe­bru­ary, it will all be much worse.”

In a con­ver­sa­tion with the leader of a Euro­pean ally, some of us asked what the United States could do to be most help­ful to him and his coun­try. His an­swer was di­rect: “Elect a pres­i­dent who un­der­stands the im­por­tance of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship in the world.”

That would be in our na­tional in­ter­est and is also wise coun­sel to Amer­i­can vot­ers as we de­cide whom to sup­port in this year’s topsy­turvy pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

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