President Obama’s patience on Syria is yielding perhaps the best policy outcome, even though the process is causing especially the far right to froth at the mouth in condemning Obama for “weakness” or “ineptitude” or a host of things. Of course, within the GOP you have Senator Rand Paul saying that Obama wants to “ally with al qaeda” by opposing Assad, while Senator McCain wants to “help the anti-Assad rebellion.” That means that Paul says fellow Republican John McCain wants to “ally with al qaeda.” And they criticize Obama?
A few points about the Syria case so far. The core of the White House response has been consistent and clear: 1) the US and the international community should not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government against civilians; 2) it is not in the US national interest to get involved in a bloody, on going war in Syria, nor is it in the US national interest to “go it alone” if the rest of the international community does not want to act in enforcement of the norms against WMD; and 3) the United States cannot act effectively if the country is not on board, meaning that Congress must approve any action taken.
The critics of Obama make the error of black and white thinking. They think that if the US believes number 1 to be true, then the US has no choice but to act. Not acting would be weakness, or sacrificing principle. That’s the kind of “all or nothing” thinking that led us to the debacle in Iraq. We may oppose the act of a foreign dictator but choose not to intervene – there have been horrific acts undertaken over the last century, rarely have we intervened. The US has only intervened when it is in the US interest.
However in this case President Obama is dealing with a world that is much different than that of the past; instead of leading the “West” in a bipolar world, the US is major power in a multi-polar world which operates under different principles than before. The Cold War world is past, both at home and abroad the US faces a fundamentally altered foreign policy reality.
- McCain’s not happy with the new GOP isolationists – Paul and McCain
The division between McCain and Paul illustrate the transformation. Paul represents an “isolationist Republican” of the kind not seen since the early post-war years. At that time anti-Communism morphed the party into a hawkish interventionist stance, one that has been pretty consistent through the Iraq War. McCain represents a “Cold War Republican” whose view of the US is that of a global leader of the West, shaping world politics to fit American values and interests. That role was possible in a bipolar world where other “western” states ad no real choice but to support the US. They relied on the US for self-defense and for preserving the global free trade system upon which post-war growth was based. The US could call the shots and expect others to jump.
Obama isn’t the first to realize the world has changed. President Clinton found it extremely difficult to put his Kosovo coalition together, and President Bush had active opposition from France and Germany to his Iraq plans. They colluded with Russia, something that obviously would have never happened in the Cold War. The fact of the matter is the US is now a powerful player in a multi-polar world, with the East-West divide a thing of the past. McCain’s Cold War mentality is obsolete.
The US cannot demand support from the “rest of the West” nor expect to receive it. The debacle in Iraq shows the limits of US military power, and assures that other states neither fear nor worry about the consequences of opposing the US. To be sure, Assad himself fears a US military attack, but also knows that the US no longer is a dominant world power.
Moreover, politics at home are fractured, and it’s hardly Obama’s fault. Assad’s ability to play the American right wing and get them to all but embrace him is an example of a domestic political situation where the far right oppose Obama so virulently that they do not want to have a united foreign policy. McCain isn’t part of that group – he and others like Senator Graham, who have been harsh in their criticism of Obama on other fronts, are ready to support the President now. They just find a party more extreme and virulent than in the past.
Mix the weakened state of the US on the world stage with the fractured and dysfunctional politics at home, and the US simply is not the world power it used to be. It’s not Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault or any one person’s fault – it’s a result of global and domestic political dynamics that have been building for over twenty years.
Yet despite that, Obama may end up with a real success on Syria – limited international action without risking US prestige and soldiers, advancing at least somewhat the norm against chemical weapons while pressuring the Syrian government. He’s handling the situation with finesse, patience, and a dose of realism. He understands the constraints, and seems to comprehend that the world of 2013 is part of a new foreign policy era. The naysaying pundits can throw out their ad hominems, but the President appears immune to their sting.