Dan Henninger: It’s not a videogame

ISIS clicks through northern Iraq after declaring a caliphate. Reuters

When ISIS made the murder of James Foley into a YouTube video, they transported this outrage to the odd middle-world we inhabit between reality and pixels of reality. People don’t ask if you saw the murder of James Foley. They ask if you’ve seen the video of his murder.

James Foley’s beheading has reset this half-real world. After watching screens on their PCs, tablets and smartphones fill with one shocking image after another—Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the girls in Nigeria, Russian rebels’ shooting down Flight 17 above Ukraine, ISIS’s one-week capture of one-third of Iraq, massacres of Yazidis and Christians, Islamic militias fighting to take over Libya, Hamas’s casual sidewalk executions—most Americans realize the stakes in the world have become bigger than the four sides of a video.

The world has reframed the politics of the 2016 election.

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National security and the U.S. role in the world has pushed toward the top of the decision tree in that election. That is why Hillary Clinton outputted an interview this summer with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, repositioning her bland foreign-policy views to the right of Barack Obama. No more speeches about saving the oceans. That’s why first-term Sen. Rand Paul used his time on “Meet the Press” last weekend to re-reposition Mrs. Clinton as a “military hawk.”

Even Mr. Obama himself reacted to the new realities. Whether to staunch the president’s political bleeding in the polls, which is threatening Democrats this November, or the nightmare of blood elsewhere, the U.S. government is reportedly preparing possible airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria and working to mobilize our “partners” in the region, such as Saudi Arabia.

Of course, the revolt of the Free Syrian Army against Bashar Assad has been on since early 2011, and Saudi Arabia concluded that being a partner of the U.S. was pointless.

These foreign-policy fiascoes, and many others, are laid at the feet of Barack Obama. And at the feet of former Secretary of State Clinton, who spent four years and a million miles in flight from all this.

Individual responsibility matters. The U.S. president is commander in chief even if he doesn’t want to be commander in chief. If Mrs. Clinton believes what she told the Atlantic, she should have resigned and said what was on her mind then. But she didn’t. Doing so would have imperiled her standing—not her standing with the American people, who were losing faith in Mr. Obama’s handling of the world, but with the Democratic Party activists who would have demolished her presidential nomination in retaliation for exposing the Obama worldview, which is their worldview.

In a foreign-policy election, as it looks like we are going to have in 2016, the stakes are a lot higher than picking among the one-person brands who populate U.S. presidential politics now. Party matters. Party history and belief shapes foreign-policy decisions in a time of crisis. The word “fortitude” comes to mind.

So one must ask: Can the Democratic Party be trusted with U.S. national security from 2016 to 2020?

At the Republicans’ 1984 convention, keynote speaker Jeane Kirkpatrick famously unloaded on the opposition party’s foreign policy as “the San Francisco Democrats.” What we have learned the past five-and-a-half years is that Jeane Kirkpatrick is still right. It isn’t just Barack Obama. It’s them. If anything, the modern Democratic Party is more hostile to national defense than it was in 1984.

Let us hypothesize that Mrs. Clinton is a Democratic hawk. Name one other office-holding hawk in the party? California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sort of. Beyond these two women, none. Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000? They joyously ran him out of the party in 2006. Sam Nunn? The last of the South’s great national-security Senate Democrats retired in 1996. Former Democratic Sen. Pat Moynihan served as a Republican president’s U.N. ambassador. Democratic hawks, or even half-hawks, aren’t an endangered species. They’re extinct.

The military types, pundits and big donors who claim to have spotted appearances of Clinton hawkishness are deluding themselves. Bill Clinton of Kosovo? In 2008, the progressive activists who organized and financed Mr. Obama’s candidacy overthrew the Clintons’ centrist triangulation machine and took control of the party. Dutifully, Mrs. Clinton ran as an antiwar candidate.

Any hawklike initiative she might attempt will be vetted and opposed by the Obama-Warren Democrats in Congress and across the blogosphere. They abhor Mrs. Clinton’s “international liberalism.” The MoveOn.org website has posted an online petition exhorting President Obama to “Keep America Out of Iraq!” These hearts and minds belong wholly to the domestic-spending accounts. National security needs diminish their reason for being.

As to the Republicans, Rand Paul’s foreign-policy minimalism remains a fringe movement, with multiple challengers. The Democrats have the opposite problem. What ought to be the party’s foreign-policy fringe has seized its center, and no one in the party will challenge it. In times of peace, this tension between the we-won’t-go left and everyone else gets indulged as a political videogame. Win some, lose some. In a world of spreading disorder, as now, that is asking too much.