Home/Daniel Larison/Obama’s ‘Disdain of Military Force’ and Our Militarized Foreign Policy

Obama’s ‘Disdain of Military Force’ and Our Militarized Foreign Policy

Robert Samuelson repeats a very tired assertion:

What’s curious is that American leaders have sometimes contributed to the decline of U.S. power. Barack Obama’s disdain of military force is so deeply felt and visible [bold mine-DL] that the use of the United States’ fighting capabilities was often discounted by allies and adversaries alike, as in Syria.

Obama leaves office later this month with the unhappy distinction of being the only president to spend his entire tenure presiding over foreign wars. His “disdain of military force” is so strong that the U.S. has bombed at least half a dozen countries on his watch, and his administration has assisted other governments in laying waste to one of the poorest countries on earth. To say that he has a “disdain of military force” might have seemed plausible eight years ago before he took office, but it is not credible to say this after eight years of Obama’s continuation, escalation, and initiation of multiple wars. The fact that he didn’t start even more or wage them as aggressively as some in Washington would like doesn’t change any of that.

One might have thought that fifteen years of desultory wars would have taught more people in Washington a bit more “disdain” for using force in response to each new crisis or conflict, but that hasn’t happened. Instead of treating Iraq and Afghanistan as sobering lessons in the limits of what the U.S. can achieve with military force, many in Washington have chosen to see Syria’s civil war as proof that even more U.S. meddling and intervention are required. The same people that learned nothing from the Iraq war chide the rest of us about “overlearning” the lessons of that war, as if it were possible to “overlearn” something as simple as “don’t fight pointless and unnecessary wars, and definitely don’t fight them in countries we don’t understand.” It’s not as if the U.S. has had a stellar record of success during this period, so it is all the more remarkable that our foreign policy is arguably more militarized now than it was even ten years ago. If Obama really did have “disdain for military force,” we would expect to have a much less militarized foreign policy than we did when he took office, but any impartial observer would have to conclude that this isn’t the case.

When a pundit says that Obama disdains the use of force, he is almost always complaining about Obama’s supposed aversion to inflicting death and destruction on other parts of the world. In a sane political culture, this would be cause for praise or at least grudging admiration, but in Washington it is considered a sign of failure. The weirdest part of Samuelson’s complaint is that there is no more certain way to hasten the decline of U.S. power than to fritter away our resources through even deeper involvement in a war in Syria. We don’t have to speculate about this. We know very well that waging prolonged, large-scale wars wastes American strength and bogs us down for years or even decades. If you wanted to hasten U.S. decline, the first thing you would have done was plunge our military into another fruitless war in Syria as soon as possible. Obama’s biggest contribution to American decline came from his decisions to continue our perpetual war footing while repeatedly claiming to be doing the opposite.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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