America’s Sharp Turn Inward

The widespread ambivalence over Syria is the culmination of a mood that has almost completely reversed what had been a rising tide toward interventionism. The public no longer believes in the military’s capacity to yield lasting results.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 file photo, a Syrian military soldier holds his AK-47 with a sticker of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Arabic that reads, "Syria is fine," as he stands guard at a check point on Baghdad street, in Damascus, Syria. The signs would all seem bad for President Bashar Assad. Blasts echo all day long over the Syrian capital as troops battle rebels entrenched on its eastern doorstep. The government admits the economy is devastated. And now allegations of a horrific chemical attack have given new life to calls for international action against his regime. 
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Ronald Brownstein
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

For nearly a dec­ade, from Bill Clin­ton’s first-term moves in­to Haiti and Bos­nia through George W. Bush’s in­va­sion of Ir­aq in 2003, the cur­rent of Amer­ic­an for­eign policy moved stead­ily to­ward great­er tol­er­ance of mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion abroad. The di­vi­sion, am­bi­val­ence, and hes­it­a­tion in both parties about in­ter­ven­ing in Syr­ia cul­min­ate a sub­sequent dec­ade that has al­most com­pletely re­versed this tide.

The un­ease about mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia has many roots. But its core is a di­min­ished faith that U.S.-led mil­it­ary ac­tions can pro­duce be­ne­fits that ex­ceed their costs, es­pe­cially in the Middle East.

The So­viet Uni­on’s off­set­ting power con­strained Wash­ing­ton’s ap­pet­ite for in­ter­ven­tion dur­ing the Cold War, but since then, the U.S. pos­ture has evolved through three phases. In the first, Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush re­mained skep­tic­al about com­mit­ting Amer­ic­an forces for pur­poses bey­ond dir­ect se­cur­ity threats (such as Ir­aq’s in­va­sion of Kuwait in 1990) and mostly re­jec­ted hu­man­it­ari­an causes (such as com­bat­ing rising eth­nic vi­ol­ence in Bos­nia). His suc­cessor chafed against, but ac­cep­ted, that at­ti­tude dur­ing his first months in the White House (iron­ic­ally, in part be­cause Clin­ton was burned by the “Black­hawk Down” dis­aster that struck the mil­it­ary force Bush had sent to sta­bil­ize chaot­ic Somalia). Clin­ton, to his later re­gret, looked away from the gen­o­cide in Rwanda and va­cil­lated on Bos­nia.

Then the cycle shif­ted in 1994, when Clin­ton de­ployed a mil­it­ary force that per­suaded Haiti’s junta to ab­dic­ate. The next year he fi­nally launched a NATO bomb­ing cam­paign against Ser­bia that promp­ted a Bos­ni­an peace agree­ment. In 1999, to­geth­er with Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair, Clin­ton en­gin­eered an­oth­er NATO bomb­ing cam­paign that stopped eth­nic cleans­ing in Kosovo.

These vic­tor­ies, won with astound­ingly few al­lied cas­u­al­ties, fueled con­fid­ence among “lib­er­al hawks” that mil­it­ary force could spread hu­man rights and demo­cracy. It was Blair who most mem­or­ably con­sec­rated these at­ti­tudes in a 1999 Chica­go speech, in which he in­voked “a new doc­trine of in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity.” He in­sisted: “We are all in­ter­na­tion­al­ists now, wheth­er we like it or not”¦. We can­not turn our backs on “¦ the vi­ol­a­tion of hu­man rights with­in oth­er coun­tries if we want still to be se­cure.”

George W. Bush and his neo­con­ser­vat­ive ad­visers ad­vanced from this beach­head, adding a pref­er­ence for uni­lat­er­al Amer­ic­an ac­tion un­shackled from the con­straints of in­ter­na­tion­al con­sensus. In Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, Bush launched in­va­sions jus­ti­fied on se­cur­ity and hu­man­it­ari­an grounds. Flush with both in­cur­sions’ early suc­cess, he mem­or­ably pledged, in his second in­aug­ur­al, a cam­paign (al­beit not ne­ces­sar­ily by mil­it­ary means) ded­ic­ated to uni­ver­sal­iz­ing free­dom and “end­ing tyranny in our world.”

These ex­pans­ive vis­ions of Amer­ica’s reach al­ways faced skep­ti­cism. Polls showed the pub­lic ini­tially cool to most of these in­ter­ces­sions, and res­ist­ance per­sisted across party lines (the House, for in­stance, dead­locked on a res­ol­u­tion to sup­port the Kosovo bomb­ing). Yet with­in both parties’ na­tion­al lead­er­ship, in­ter­ven­tion re­tained a de­cis­ive mass of sup­port, as each mil­it­ary suc­cess provided the mo­mentum for the next at­tempt.

That cycle star­ted un­wind­ing al­most im­me­di­ately after Bagh­dad fell. In Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, it proved far easi­er to topple tyr­an­nic­al re­gimes than to end vi­ol­ence, seed demo­cracy, or even in­still or­der. Pres­id­ent Obama’s more-re­luct­ant moves to de­pose auto­crat­ic rulers in Libya (through al­lied bomb­ing) and Egypt (with a dip­lo­mat­ic nudge) re­in­forced the mes­sage. Each ex­per­i­ence deepened the con­vic­tion that in the Middle East, “even well-in­ten­ded in­ter­ven­tions don’t work out,” notes James B. Stein­berg, a former top na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser to Clin­ton and Obama.

This down­ward spir­al, the third phase of at­ti­tudes about in­ter­ven­tion, shapes the Syr­ia de­bate. The past dec­ade’s re­versals have culled the lib­er­al-hawk strain not only among Amer­ic­an Demo­crats but also in the U.K, where Blair’s Labor Party op­posed Syr­i­an in­ter­ven­tion en masse. Among Amer­ic­an con­ser­vat­ives, GOP Sens. John Mc­Cain and Lind­sey Gra­ham wave the Bush-era ban­ner when they de­mand an ex­pan­ded cam­paign to topple Syr­ia’s Bashar al-As­sad. But former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich came closer to the Right’s new con­sensus when he de­clared re­cently, “It may be that our ca­pa­city to ex­port demo­cracy is a lot more lim­ited than we thought.”

The irony is that Obama plainly shares Gin­grich’s skep­ti­cism: He is pro­pos­ing con­strained mil­it­ary ac­tion against Syr­ia not to over­throw As­sad or even primar­ily to pro­tect ci­vil­ians. In­stead, Obama is nar­rowly de­fend­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al norm against the use of chem­ic­al weapons, and he is seek­ing to dis­cour­age oth­er rogue na­tions from em­ploy­ing them. Obama’s doubts about Wash­ing­ton’s abil­ity to spread free­dom through force more closely track the eld­er Bush’s Greatest Gen­er­a­tion cau­tion than the mis­sion­ary baby-boomer op­tim­ism of Clin­ton, Blair, and Bush II.

Stein­berg, now dean of Syra­cuse Uni­versity’s Max­well School, ar­gues Syr­ia is an es­pe­cially tough case polit­ic­ally be­cause spe­cif­ic frus­tra­tion with the Middle East com­pounds the broad­er cool­ing to­ward hu­man­it­ari­an in­ter­ven­tion. Hu­man­it­ari­an ar­gu­ments, he adds, will likely per­suade Con­gress less than the “real­ist case” that spar­ing As­sad would em­bolden rogue states like Ir­an. Even if Con­gress backs Obama, this de­bate’s real les­son is the U.S. has come full circle — and is again fo­cused more on the risks than the re­wards of re­mak­ing com­plex so­ci­et­ies at gun­point.

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