Obama was the anti-Bush of 2008, a peace candidate whose antiwar supporters’ hopes were symbolized after his election by the Nobel Prize he won in 2009.
John Kerry was the anti-Bush of 2004, a man who may have accepted the military pageantry of his nominating convention but who had, after all, made his name with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and famously said in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?”
Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, would have been the dream candidate of the realist right, a Republican veteran who may have voted for the Iraq War but regretted it and strongly opposed the “surge.”
These alternatives to the man who took us to war in Iraq now make America’s foreign policy. And they propose to attack a Mideast country over a Baathist dictator’s weapons of mass destruction.
Yet irony aside, the foreign policy we’re getting is exactly the one you would expect from these men: not a peace policy—not noninterventionism—but a conflicted war policy. And it had to be like this: if U.S. strategy is to change, this is the ugly way it has to come about. A President Rand Paul wouldn’t have any easier a time of it than Barack Obama is having, for reasons that are worth exploring.
Since at least the Reagan era the notion that the U.S. can advance its interests with limited military actions—micro-wars—has been presidential doctrine. Cruise missiles and bombing sorties, and now drones, have displaced covert action and the use of foreign proxies as keystones of U.S. power. Not that we don’t still engage in plenty of covert operations, but the tools Washington is most comfortable with today are mechanical. During the Cold War, presidents could readily support dictators who would serve our interests; today that’s considered unhygienic. We prefer “surgical strikes.”
Such strikes do not often achieve their strategic objectives: they don’t dissuade terrorism, they’re not sufficient to effect regime change–remember the “decapitation” strikes that preceded “boots on the ground” in Iraq?—and they don’t do much to prevent humanitarian catastrophes. They do, however, have a ritual value: a president can fire missiles to show that he’s not sitting passively by as something we don’t like takes place. That his action has no decisive practical effect on the situation just can’t be helped; the alternative—doing nothing—would be equally ineffective, while also burdening the president’s conscience (not just his poll numbers) with a sense of impotence and failure.
Until the George W. Bush administration, presidents had hoped that relatively small deployments of troops could do what bombs and missiles could not. So we had a succession of minor conflicts quite different from the big ones of Vietnam and Korea: Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans. The first Bush’s Gulf War and the second’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involved more men and longer deployments than the others, but were still meant to be cakewalks not quagmires. And in one sense, they were: the first Gulf War, the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 were all swiftly and rather painlessly accomplished. The trouble was what came after.
So now Obama, Kerry, and Hagel are confronted with this: the tools customarily at their disposal are either ineffective (bombing) or too expensive (boots on the ground—costly above all in moral and political terms). A return to the dictator-friendly Realpolitik of the Cold War hardly seems possible. What can an electable “peace” politician do?
Obama’s first answer was to “lead from behind” in Libya, with America supporting European forces and Libyan rebels. That seemed to work, until Benghazi. What’s more, leading from behind hasn’t been an option in Syria, where even the British don’t want to be involved. Obama was left to deploy symbolic force or do nothing.
Instead, he’s tried something novel, asking Congress for permission to use cruise missiles. It’s the same policy instrument his recent predecessors have resorted to with abandon, but Obama is, in effect, asking Congress and the country to re-evaluate its use: America’s conscience is pricked, no one else will act, but the weapon at hand is of little use by itself, and a wider war is a terrifying prospect. Obama proposes to use missiles anyway, but he’s tentative, to the point where he’ll even consider a sudden proposal from the Russians—especially in light of the fact that he couldn’t have persuaded Congress about a bombing policy he doesn’t seem persuaded about himself.
Whether or not the U.S. should be policing Syria in particular, there will always be objectives the U.S. wants to achieve by modifying the behavior of foreign actors. Some of those objectives will be moral, others purely in the national self-interest. It does no good to propose that the U.S. simply stop thinking about what happens in other countries—“noninterventionism” in this sense is as poor a term for what’s needed as “isolationism” is. As the name says, the focus of noninterventionism tends to be on simply not acting, as opposed to ways in which the U.S. can act that would be both more effective and less bloody than our present policy tools allow. For a decade, a broad-based noninterventionist sentiment has matured under Bush and Obama, but sentiment has to translate into policy at some point. It cannot be pure idealism, a wish for an end to world politics.
Obama, Kerry, and Hagel were never noninterventionists, but they represent a half-turn away from interventionism. They’re caught between their own conventional attitudes about American power and the realization that the tools at their disposal are broken. Politics being what it is, the country could not have switched from George W. Bush’s (or Dick Cheney’s) hyper-interventionism directly to a practical noninterventionism—assuming that a practical noninterventionism were even on the menu, which as yet it is not. There had to be a period of transition.
The failure of the Bush project and the lack of direction that has characterized Obama’s foreign policy are symptoms of the breakdown of one presidential way of thinking and acting in the world, a model that arose after Vietnam and is slowly collapsing after Iraq. Obama has tried to salvage and reform it—he’s the Gorbachev of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy. But as the example of the Soviet Union in 1991 showed, the implosion of one political paradigm is only half the story, the other half is what replaces it. That’s the discussion Americans should be having now: what would a foreign policy that wasn’t merely a reformist version of Bush’s policy look like? How could it secure American objectives (including such things as deterring the use of chemical weapons) without easy recourse to force?
An answer might be strategic diplomacy, played hard or soft as necessary, and an overall approach more like that of the “political warfare” of the early Cold War. (Though in a sense, Reagan and Pope John Paul II at the end of the Cold War were the consummate strategic diplomats.) China also provides us some clues: Beijing stays out of shooting wars but knows very well how to throw its weight around. Even Putin is now teaching us a lesson about the power of diplomacy—including public diplomacy in his New York Times piece—that we would do well to learn. American diplomacy has long been reduced to an adjunct to our coercive power, used too often to make excuses for a policy defined by the cruise missile. That has to change, for strategic reasons as much as moral ones. But it will take time.