International

An extraordinary turn against military intervention

Commentary: Americans usually embrace war. Their rejection of President Obama's Syria plan is historic.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz Sept. 3, 2013 in the Red Sea.
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Decisions about what action the United States should take against Syria will decisively affect Syria and much of the Middle East. The biggest impact, however, may be felt inside the US.

The negative reaction in Congress and among the American people to President Obama’s proposal of military intervention has been sharp. U.S. receptiveness to Russia’s proposal to sequester Syria’s chemical weapons shows how eager Washington is to avoid a military response.

Neither this turn nor the potential “no” vote in Congress would represent a full rejection of Obama’s plan. It would, however, be something extraordinary — even historic. It would suggest that a substantial percentage of Americans believe that a proposed war is a bad idea. In the context of American history, this is almost unthinkable.

War is woven into the fabric of American life, and Americans usually embrace it. A century ago, this was because many considered war an exuberant, cleansing, manly endeavor. Theodore Roosevelt, who famously declared that he would “welcome almost any war,” exemplified this view. “All the great masterful races have been fighting races,” Roosevelt declared, “and the minute that a race loses the hard fighting virtues, then, no matter what else it may retain, no matter how skilled in commerce and finance, in science or art, it has lost its proud right to stand as the equal of the best.”

Advances in the technology of destruction and killing made it difficult to sustain belief in war’s beauty or nobility. The idea of manifest destiny gave way to something more sophisticated called liberal internationalism, corporate globalism or, in Henry Cabot Lodge’s formulation, “the large policy.”

The first organization founded to promote this ideology, the Council on Foreign Relations, emerged after World War I and took as its motto a Latin word, ubique, which means “everywhere.” That word was intended as the succinct answer to a host of great questions: Where does the U.S. have vital interests? Where must it seek to shape the course of events? Where does it have enemies? Where must it be ready to fight?

Because the U.S. possesses such overwhelming military force, it naturally seeks to use that force. This has led inexorably to the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. American leaders have always acted on the assumption that in the end, they have recourse to all the coercive power they need to achieve any geopolitical goal.

Castro is bad? Invade Cuba. The leader of a tiny Caribbean island is executed? Invade Grenada. Noriega is defiant? Invade Panama. Don’t like Milosevic? Bomb Yugoslavia. The Taliban collaborates with our enemies? Bomb Afghanistan. Saddam is defiant? Invade Iraq.

American reluctance to intervene in a faraway land suggests a retreat from hubris toward reality.

Many Americans who supported these wars came to realize that they did not fully understand the situations into which their country was plunging and that there might be unexpected consequences. They assumed, however, that whatever problems arose, the power of the United States was so overwhelming that it would be able to resolve them. This conviction now seems to be slipping away.

Large numbers of Americans oppose bombing Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. Newspapers are full of reports about members of Congress whose constituents are begging them to oppose President Obama’s proposed attack. Public opinion surveys show scant support for bombing. Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country.

Part of this has to do with the weakness of Obama’s case. No vital American interests are at stake in Syria, and bombing is unlikely to have any substantial effect. Arguing against bombing Syria is easy.

More is at stake than Syria, however. American reluctance to intervene in a faraway land suggests a retreat from hubris toward reality — a creeping fear that the United States, powerful as it is, may not be able to control the effects of its foreign adventures.

Generations of Americans once grew up believing not only that their country was omnipotent, but that it was an essential force for good in the world. One fictional product of the cold war, Rabbit Angstrom, the central figure in a series of John Updike novels, perfectly expressed this view.

“America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God,” Angstrom reflects. “Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules in chains and darkness strangles millions.”

Response to the Syria crisis suggests that many Americans no longer believe that. They have concluded that Syrians must work out their own problems and that the U.S. has no business intervening. This is the start of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy.

Part of congressional opposition to an attack on Syria is based on mindless anti-Obama passion. Some is the result of Iraq fatigue. Much of it, however, seems based on an emerging belief that the U.S. cannot be the world’s policeman, that it should turn its attention to urgent challenges at home and that it has neither the moral authority nor the military power to impose its values on the rest of the world.

This is an exciting moment for those who wish that the U.S. would finally recognize the limits of its power, abandon its delusions of exceptionalism, and realize that it does not have answers to all of the world’s problems.

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