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Obama has been right to ignore calls to commit US forces to topple the Assad regime. The national interest does not justify it. The public support for it does not exist. And the conflict itself is morally ambiguous, writes
A year after the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime, an unnamed senior Bush administration adviser (widely believed to be Karl Rove) boasted to the New York Times Magazine: "We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
At the height of the Libyan operation in April 2011, an unnamed senior Obama administration adviser told the New Yorker magazine that America was "leading from behind," a phrase which according to the source reflected the reality that the US now lacks the relative power to impose its will and leadership across a more pluralistic world.
Perhaps no two quotes from key White House advisers demonstrate the dramatically shifting attitudes about America's place in the world in the past decade.
In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, American outrage taken together with the mental habits of American global hegemony and American exceptionism gave US leaders a clear overriding sense of purpose and mission. The result: the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which have cost the US dearly in blood and treasure as well as credibility and prestige.
In the aftermath of those wars as well as the global financial crisis, Americans are increasingly recognising the costs and limits of the use of force. The result: US caution and failure to try to end the Syrian civil war, which has cost more than 90,000 lives and further instability across the Arab world.
Although it is tempting to argue that America is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't, it is worth bearing in mind that many of the same people who were gung-ho about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been quick to condemn Barack Obama's response to the Syrian crisis. Weak, soft, appeaser, amoral — all of these barbs have been hurled at the president for failing to intervene more assertively against the Assad forces.
For the people of Syria, the failure to resolve their crisis and end the suffering is tragic. Yet Obama has been right to ignore calls to commit US forces to topple the Assad regime. The national interest does not justify it. The public support for it does not exist. And the conflict itself is morally ambiguous.
Yes, Assad, like his father before him, is a brutal tyrant. But it is far from clear that the opponents who are clamouring for US assistance command the support or trust of a majority of the Syrian people. Indeed, some segments of the rebellion are linked to Islamist extremists.
But Obama deserves criticism for his failure to explain his policy coherently. He boxed himself into a corner last year when he called for the overthrow of Assad, warning that the regime would cross a "red line" by using chemical weapons (translation: invite US intervention).
Far from picking sides in what is a civil war, perhaps the US would have been better off to lower expectations and help enable conflict resolution while adopting a policy of neutrality.
Still, Obama's ineptitude here should not disguise the fact that, all things considered, his foreign policy marks an escape from the sweeping ambition that the US can and should lead the world globally. He is attempting to define a new US role in the world that fits America's changed circumstances and more limited resources.
One theme of his foreign policy is that it is time for the US to focus on "nation-building at home", something Obama has stressed several times in recent years. The second theme is the subtle emphasis on caution, prudence, balance, modesty and proportionality in dealing with adversaries and competitors. Still another theme is the vague acknowledgement that America's strategic dominance since World War II will not last forever.
The Obama foreign policy message is not, contrary to his critics' claims, that passivity is a foreign policy virtue. Rather, it is that, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the national interest, it is sometimes appropriate for Washington to take the lead in mobilising multilateral action and proffering credible threats, but sometimes it is not. Other times, it may make sense for the US to be not so visible during a crisis.
One of the disconcerting things about Obama's more muscular critics, from neoconservatives on the right to liberal hawks on the left, is that they seem to favour American global military interventionism as a binding principle rather than as a course to be pursued only when the effort is commensurate with the stakes, and when other measures have failed.
During his tenure, the president has jettisoned his predecessor's doctrine of preventive warfare, aggressive unilateralism and a clear division between those "with us" and "against us." Meanwhile, Washington has played down, without ever ruling out, the prospect of a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
This new strategy does not stop Obama from escalating drone strikes against terrorists, nor will it derail his administration's "pivot" of US forces toward East Asia. But it does allow him to reorder priorities in favour of discrimination and selectivity, to get a good running start on once again matching resources and aspirations.
None of this is about a new isolationism, nor does it smack of appeasement, as some Obama critics allege. It's an approach that stresses a more discriminating foreign policy, pursued with a prudent calculation of commitments and resources, while focusing on putting America's house in order.
To be sure, the US is the world's largest economy that comprises more than 20 per cent share of the global growth. It is also the most capable military power whose defence budget is larger than that of the next 10 nations combined. Add to this America's unique demographics and the shale gas revolution which promises to be an economic bonanza, and the fact that there is no other clear rival on the horizon, and it is clear that the US will remain the most powerful nation in the world for the next generation or longer.
My point, though, is that America no longer has the will, wallet or influence to impose an active and ambitious global leadership across the world. The onus is on president Obama to explain to the American people that the US has left the realm of necessity and is increasingly entering the realm of choice, where the key word is not "and" but "or", and the key question is not "how?" but "why?"
This article was originally published at The American Interest and co-authored with Owen Harries.