The current debate about whether the president should take military action against the Syrian regime after Assad’s alleged use of chemical warfare against his people has taken a noteworthy turn. Those who oppose military intervention entirely or insist on making it contingent on congressional approval do not break down into the usual partisan categories. Broadly speaking, those who oppose immediate presidential intervention, or intervention generally, are a growing combination of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Standing with them is now more than half of the American public.
Among the prominent opponents of intervention are Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, all outspoken small-government conservatives and U.S. Senators who are concerned about constitutional restraints on presidential powers. These figures are making common cause with people on the left, who insist that the UN, not the U.S. government, should handle the Syrian crisis. For leftist critics, our country has domestic concerns that are more pressing than meddling in another country’s civil war. Significantly, opponents of intervention, right and left, see no “American interest” at stake in Syria.
Those on the other side, led by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Congressman Peter King of New York, and the Rupert Murdoch media empire, believe that Obama should be bombing Syrian military installations without congressional approval and trying to overthrow and replace the Assad regime. Those who favor intervention typically endorse a far-reaching involvement in Syria that goes well beyond destroying chemical weapons facilities. From their point of view, the Obama administration has compromised American credibility by not taking decisive action to remove the Syrian government. It has also dishonored the “democratic values” that the U.S. should strive to bring to other nations. In a ringing statement of this creed, Brookings Institute fellow and a leading neoconservative theorist Robert Kagan delivered a speech last week, affirming the need for a global American presence aimed at nurturing democratic institutions worldwide. Kagan, who was a major rhetorical influence on the foreign policy of George W. Bush, views the Obama administration as retreating into an isolationist posture that betrays what the U.S. has stood for internationally for the last hundred years.
Allow me to admit the obvious: my views of America’s place in the world differ so fundamentally from that of Kagan or John McCain that I can almost sympathize with Obama’s inaction by default. Although the president should never have expressed his intention to intervene militarily if Assad employed chemical weapons, and although he may now be losing additional credibility by appearing to waver, I am delighted that the neoconservative foreign policy, which my late friend the economist Murray Rothbard described as “perpetual war for the sake of perpetual peace,” is falling into disrepute. By what right do we dictate to other countries how they should live? The 80 percent of the public who favor congressional approval for the proposed Syrian intervention are right.
Moreover, contrary to what Kagan and his ilk suggest, American intervention has not always brought beneficial result. American entanglement in World War I contributed to a global disaster including a glaringly unjust peace; and I can’t think of any benefit that came from our military action in Vietnam or our suppression of the Filipino independence movement at the end of the nineteenth century, which cost a staggering number of human lives. Although the war against Hitler’s regime was necessary for the removal of a hideous tyranny, I can’t find any justification for the firebombing of civilian populations in Central Europe, particularly after the tide of war had turned. The same judgment would apply to the firebombing of Tokyo and the dropping of two atomic bombs on defenseless cities, in order to extract an “unconditional surrender” from our Asian foe.
For those who may be worried about my lack of democratic crusading spirit, let me assure them that I speak for the true American conservative tradition, which emphasizes constitutional restraints and political modesty. Although we need a real foreign policy, as opposed to Obama’s muddling through, I certainly would not rely on McCain Republicans or the Wall Street Journal to supply us with one. I am also retrospectively relieved that the Republicans did not win the last two presidential races with the candidates they ran, although I did vote for both because of my aversion for Obama. In all probability, such figures as John Bolton and Robert Kagan would have been invited to take over the State Department if the GOP had prevailed in 2008 or 2012. I am still recovering from Bolton’s announcement on Fox last week that “the President can take military action any time he wants without consulting congress.” This, mind you, came from someone who is (falsely) identified as a “conservative.” I am pleased that there are other Republicans in the news who are appealing to a different constitutional tradition.