Christopher Caldwell

Obama knows that America has lost its appetite for war

The age of 'maximalist' foreign policy may be drawing to an end

Obama knows that America has lost its appetite for war
Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
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It was to Fort Belvoir that President Barack Obama repaired on Saturday, minutes after he announced that attacks by the Syrian government on a rebel stronghold in Damascus constituted ‘an assault on human dignity’ and a ‘serious threat to our national security.’ By using what the US government says was sarin gas, Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad crossed a ‘red line’ that Mr Obama had laid down a year before. The President has asked Congress to authorise an attack on Syria as soon as legislators return on 9 September.

Fort Belvoir is home to the US army’s 29th Light Infantry Division. More to the point, it is the site of a terrific 18-hole golf course, and the President had a mid-afternoon tee-time with the Vice President. Mr Obama, unlike his predecessor, is not going to rush off to war.

But only because he has just suffered the most stinging political setback of his presidency. Rushing to war is just what Mr Obama wanted to do. He is not asking for authorisation on Capitol Hill out of constitutional scruples. Nor is he turning the tables on a bunch of carping congressmen who must now put up or shut up. Nor is he showing ‘boldness’. He is reading the polls. Mr Obama, whose Silicon Valley backers have provided him with the most sophisticated understanding of voter sentiment that any candidate has ever had, has discovered the country has lost its appetite for following presidents on Middle Eastern adventures. Almost 60 per cent of Americans oppose intervention in Syria, the Washington Post found this week. They are not unmoved by the televised images of swooning children. They are sympathetic to the argument that a failure to rein in Syria will make it harder to stymie the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea. But they are beginning to worry that the man they elected to end what he called a ‘dumb war’ in Iraq is about to blunder into one himself.

It was the parliamentary vote denying David Cameron the right to strike Syria that altered the discussion in the USA. Suddenly, a vague unease about further military entanglements hardened into a vigilant rejection. Those who warn of an imperilled ‘special relationship’ are mistaken. As John O’Sullivan points out in the preceding piece, the Anglo-American relationship has always been hard-headed, not sentimental. American ideas of liberty, order and political representation are merely English ones refined. Serious disagreement between the two countries on any matter is an indication that one of them is reasoning wrongly. The two political systems therefore tend to defer to one another. What happened last week is bad for the special relationship only if you believe the deference is all supposed to go one way.

In Washington, as in Westminster, the Syrian crisis summons up remembrance of quagmires past. Right now, the strongest among the rebel groups opposing Assad is the al-Nusra Front, al-Qa’eda’s wing in Syria. You can deplore Assad’s use of Syria’s vast chemical arsenal and still believe it would be far worse if his adversaries ever got control of it. Americans have been told that they partly brought the attacks of 11 September 2001 upon themselves by backing the Afghani mujahedin in the Cold War; striking Assad means backing those who spent that 11 September dancing in the streets.

The problem is that the West has cried wolf. The language with which this war is being sold is almost identical to that of previous ones. ‘We would not put boots on the ground,’ said Mr Obama in his Saturday statement, echoing verbatim the expression Bill Clinton used in 1999 to talk the country into war against Serbia. The no-boots promise is fulfillable only so long as you have a co-operative enemy. And any talk of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ leaves citizens cynical. ‘WMD’ was a term used by the Bush White House to blur the distinction between barbaric chemical weapons and world-annihilating nuclear ones.

So by the time Mr Obama said in a public television interview in late August that ‘we can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq’, people were wary. Having long made ‘regime change’ — toppling Assad and replacing him with a more sympathetic leader — the explicit goal of the administration’s diplomacy, the President was now claiming to want no such thing. He was de-escalating American demands even as he escalated hostilities.

The President has burnt all his political capital on health-care reform and other measures the country doesn’t like. He must now rely on congressional bosses of both parties to protect his stature as America’s commander-in-chief. Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor … all four would rank high on a list of the country’s least popular politicians. If everything works right for Mr Obama, a war against Syria will be born of his charisma and the four hacks’ tactical savvy. If everything works wrong, voters will catch on that these people are, in some important sense, the soulmates of their President, whose deepest, darkest secret — the conventionality of his political tactics and his ideals — will stand revealed.

Even with leading Republicans behind him, Mr Obama is not assured of a victory in the House, where alliances and allegiances are in flux. In late July, Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, tried to write into the defence appropriations bill a cut-off of the big federal data-collecting programmes that the former NSA freelancer Edward Snowden revealed in June. A coalition of right-wing libertarians and left-wing war sceptics came within a dozen votes (217-205) of passing it. And should Mr Obama lose, a constitutional fight might be in the offing. Michael Shear of the New York Times has written of Congress that Obama ‘has spent much his second term trying to find creative ways to work around their judgment’. That is the most polite way of putting a serious problem. Mr Obama’s foes believe his instincts are undemocratic, that his problem is not with Congress’s judgment but with its legitimate constitutional functions. Mr Obama’s Saturday speech sounded a worrying note. ‘While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorisation,’ he said, ‘I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course.’ Should the vote not go his way, Mr Obama may feel himself entitled to take the country to war anyway, against Congress’s explicit wishes.

Regardless of the spirit in which he receives the vote, Mr Obama has set in motion a massive de facto reassessment of US foreign policy. The most likely outcome is a withdrawal of the licence that the public once (passively) granted for a politics of converting all the world’s dictatorships into American-style democracies. Since the Berlin Wall fell, the USA has tended to conduct foreign policy through what the political scientist Stephen Sestanovich calls ‘American maximalism’, which he defined as ‘reaching further than allies wanted, defining struggles with adversaries in all-or-nothing terms, accepting instability and tension as the price of boldness — and … making the preservation of American power and influence the ultimate policy goal’.

Until Iraq, it mostly worked. America treated foreign policy as poker, raising the stakes of any engagement until the other geostrategic players could not afford to stay in the game. Every small raid or atrocity was cast as a battle between civilisation and barbarism, and when the stakes were that high, well, who could stand idly by, or back the enemies of freedom? America was thus goaded into war after war. Now the whole process seems to be going into reverse. Having overestimated his own persuasiveness and finding he does not have the country behind him, Mr Obama has turned an episode in a regional conflict — albeit an alarming and gruesome one — into a referendum on whether the US ought to have any special responsibilities in the world at all.

‘Anything in there about Assad?’