Obama knows that America has lost its appetite for war

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

7 September 2013

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.

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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.

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Show comments
  • mikewaller

    Given how “picky” that appetite has always been and how woefully it was frittered in Iraqi, do not G W Bush and his team deserve nomination as the worst US players on the international stage since 1776?

    • george

      Go to h e double hockeysticks.

    • jrdobbsjr

      Not even close. If Woodrow Wilson had been stopped from getting us stuck in the First World War and let you go on until you’d had a bellyful of the Col Blimps marching your poor (not to mention the Wogs from the Empire) into the waiting German Maxim guns….the the US would have been vastly better off for it.

      • mikewaller

        Crap! Had the Kaiser’s Germany achieved European domination in, say, 1917, it would have carried out its plans to work with South and Central America to subdue or isolate the hated gringos. As an American with brains once told me, “We knew we could supplant you on the World stage, not so sure about the Germans”. But again, I stress, he had brains.

  • Bonkim

    So has Britain.

  • george

    ‘Unlike his predecessor’.

    Obama is indeed unlike his predecessor — in nearly all ways, dishonourable.

    ‘Rush off to war’. We were attacked. And over many years (embassy and ship-bombings, hostage-takings, beheadings, in addition to the atrocities of September 11, 2001). How dare you.

    • Christian

      You werent attacked by Afghanistan, nor by Iraq. You were attacked by Saudis, their training paid for with…….Saudi money. Oddly you didn’t attack Saudi Arabia. How very peculiar.

      • george

        Read my comment to your co-head-in-sander. And: which in my list of atrocities inflicted on Westerners do you deny? And: how about some gratitude and thanks on behalf of the country — Iraq — that we liberated from the psychotic Hussein regime? Or can’t you tell the difference between the decent rule of law and a sicko’s whim?

        • Christian

          Well under the ‘psychotic’ saddam Hussein, Iraqis had clean water, excellent hospitals and universities and streets that were safe to walk. Women were free to work as engineers and doctors and alcohol consumption was no ones business but uour own. Now they have none of the above and run the risk of being blown to smithereens by jihadists. If that liberation I think I’ll take tyranny.

          • george

            No need for quotation marks, mate. But do reveal your ignorance and prejudice for all to see, if you insist.

          • Christian

            You’re right, intervention created a veritable utopia in Iraq. I’m just so silly.

          • pedestrianblogger

            No. You are not silly, merely contemptible. You are an apologist for this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Saddam_Hussein%27s_Iraq#Number_of_Victims

          • Christian

            Those numbers might as well have been plucked from the air. 100’000 or as many as 250,000. Why not 2 million or 22? It’s possible to think saddam was the devil himself but still believe there are worse alternatives. Turns out there are.

          • george

            Your last comment about Iraq was so dishonest, contemptible, warped, and disgusting on so many levels that I can’t exchange any more remarks with you. You are willing to defend an indefensible cruel regime — apparently because America and its allies were incapable of creating a ‘utopia’ in its place. The irrationality and inhumanity of that view beggar belief.

            As Jim Geraghty so ably put it — and you show all the classic signs of anti-Americanism — “Anti-Americanism is driven by the United States’s role in the world as a secular, Judeo-Christian, economic, cultural, and military superpower and the fact that so many other nations and cultures require a scapegoat, rival, or demon figure.”

          • Christian

            America has killed more people and invaded more countries than any nation in the last fifty years. Now, less of the hysteria and tell me is the quality of life in iraq better or worse post saddam?

          • george

            Get help.

          • La Fold

            Your point is myopic as it is moronic. So by your logic the increasing rates of literacy and numeracy as well as growing equality of women under the ASBP and ultimately the Tikriti clan excuses decades of murder, oppression, anti-semtism, ethnci cleansing and sectarian violence by the state?

          • Christian

            I excuse nothing. I simply don’t share your child like inability to realise that one must sometimes choose between the lesser of two evils, and that when choosing a course of action, it is incumbent upon its proponents to consider if said action will make things better or worse. They must also take full responsibility. Hence I find your charge of myopia laughable as it applies to you far more than I. Now as George couldn’t answer my very simple question I shall try you: is life in Iraq now better or worse since the invasion?

          • La Fold

            Well I contend that the growth of a society, especially one
            coming from a cruel and murderous despotic dictatorship, will take a long time and will be a painful process. I see this view as neither myopic or childish but fairly realsitic
            History has repeatedly shown this.

            So living standards are lower than before the invasion?

            Living standards in Nazi occupied Western Europe were much higher than they were before D-day. Europe was left in ruins after the 2nd World war and was in turmoil for decades. The violence faced by Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland, Civil war amongst Communist Partisans in Greece and Humanitarian crises’ spread across the continent all of which culminated in a 50 year nuclear stand off.

            So by your rationale, the liberation of Europe in 1945 was a failure up until about 1990.

            To think that once Iraq was liberated that it was all going
            to be sunshine, rainbows and unicorns within a few years is a somewhat childish view.

            As for your question on whether life is better, I think that
            depends on who you are? If you were a Sunni Ba’athist and worked for the state I reckon life is pretty different now than before the invasion.

            However, go and ask the Kurds in the North, the Turkmen in
            Mosul and Kirkuk, the Shia muslims, the Marsh Arabs in the south, the few Jewsleft, the Chaldeans and anybody who was persecuted by the Ba’athists or anyone
            whose daughter was raped by Saddams sons if life is better now.

            Just out of interest, have you ever been to Iraq? I have my
            pedigree chum

            Ive worked there, in the South around Basra in Faw, Al
            Shafi, Um Quasr and a few other places, but I do love to hear how Iraqis think from someone over the internet.

            Now answer my previous question, would you applaud the
            execution of your family in exchange for clean water?

          • cyllan

            it just makes me laugh, the military defeat of iraq took 41 days, then all the muslim terrorists of the world moved to iraq to destroy everything and everyone to make sure no democracy would ever rise ( daily bombings in iraqui police recruitment centers……….and you blame bush….?
            i remember when iraq invaded kuwait, the US beat their ar-ses back to iraq in 1990 and no more problems….
            the problem is we are giving human rights to terrorists instead of executing them the EXACT WAY they do us.
            arabs dont care about their lives or any others just how many ,jews ,christians ,americans, and infidels can kill.
            dishonest , comptemptible , warped and disgusting is what we have allowed here.
            i wish i knew how to stop it

          • george

            I understand your dismay, but we are more just than they, and that means more forgiving of human weakness and human failure. Which is why we do not, nor should, bring about a cruel fate as they do to us. I would be most happy if our enemies could learn to be humane and decently rational. Unfortunately, that is beyond a great many of them.

          • cyllan

            wishful thinking……say that to the christians in syria, cops in egypt, being raped killed ransomed and then killed , our politicians only have one priority ( second to their ego ) …and it is the muslim vote , the immigrant vote .

            in 20 years our prime minister will be a mohammed , and the law sharia…….and if we are lucky there will be some civil war before then…….

            england is finished

          • La Fold

            But you were only allowed these things if you strictly adhered to the Ba’athist party line and they could be revoked at anytime by the whim of a psychopathic crime family. Do you honestly think you’d happily applaud the execution of your own family in exchange for clean water?

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Being top nation does have its downside. Face it, the United States of Torture has earned its “Most Hated Nation” ranking.
          Some 5.5 million third-world people in SE killed as a result of a cock-eyed domino theory paranoia.
          Jack, Japan Alps

          • george

            I’m sorry: I don’t read rabid anti-Americans and anti-Brits.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Truth hurts, huh?

          • george

            You’re blinded by hatred in this case (and in lots of others: I’ve seen you around the Telegraph for years), and it’s deeply irrational. Possibly you ain’t right. Think about it.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            You say that to everyone that disagrees with you, don`t you.

          • george

            No. Just you, honeybun.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            george Christian

            • 4 days ago

            Get help.

        • kinghmong

          Bush’s foreign policy could be summarized as “shoot first, ask questions later”. Without thinking through and planning for what comes next, Bush deeply damaged the office of the President and destroyed the one area where bipartisanship still held sway. I was one who supported the Iraq invasion at the time. But I also wrote that we must not try and do it on the cheap; that every dollar not spent today would cost us 10 tomorrow. After the war we had a window of opportunity which we squandered because we didn’t have a plan for winning the peace and extremely limited resources for doing so. Perhaps I’m deluding myself that Iraq could have possibly been a foreign policy success, but given how poorly managed the “can’t shoot straight gang” did things, it wasn’t possible at all…..and now I feel foolish that I ever trusted that jackass to do anything. Bush was among the worst presidents in US history and his legacy is at play today in so many ways. What an embarrassment.

          • george

            I didn’t bother to read this, just a partial skim — but as I say: a whiff of irrational blame-gaming is enough to turn me off. Take it to your psychotherapist.

          • kinghmong

            Sell crazy someplace else we’re all stocked up here.

          • george

            Yes, I can see that. Perhaps there’s more room in your garage?

          • kinghmong

            Someone else’s garage….in Damascus I hope.

          • cyllan

            i just wonder what kind of rebuilding can be done surrounded by trucks full of explosives……
            this started inmediately after the basic invaSION and defeat of the iraq army by the way.

          • kinghmong

            Perhaps it couldn’t be done. Unfortunately we’ll never know. What we do know is that it couldn’t have been worse.

          • La Fold

            yes because its sectarian violence between shia ans sunni muslim . the army and the rest of the state apparatus was used to suppress the shia minority as well as the kurds in the north.

      • jrdobbsjr

        Ohhh…George, you’ve unearthed a Truther.

        • george

          Who knows what he is, Jr.

    • xDemosthenesx

      An example of either

      a) The faux outrage phenomena (hysteria?) that engulfs the right in America. You are perfectly aware that you were not attacked by Iraq and trying to bunch all ‘those brown people’ together is pathetic.

      or b) the staggering, frightening ignorance and stupidity of people who believe this.

      • george

        Eh? Nobody ‘attacked Iraq’: what the free world ‘attacked’ was tyranny. And, as you are plainly unwilling to acknowledge, the atrocities suffered at the hands of jihadists on our own soil and throughout the world were ample provocation.

        You’ve never learned to deal with bullies, have you?

        • erzengle

          You are full of semantic skulduggery and extremely active on this issue. Claiming that no one attacked Iraq is a brazen lie. There is no country called Tyranny and the title “the free world” means less now than the Nobel peace prize.

          You want people to believe nobody attacked Iraq? The free world, that’s us [the eponymous good guys] attacked an abstracted noun with shock and awe, did we? We sure fixed their hash. We have the euphemisms and feeble propagandists to prove it‘s true.

          This is surely a new definition of denial or, in the vernacular, self deception. I cannot believe you have managed to deceive other people with this crude, semantic conjuring trick: it’s really lame. Er? Who ticked your box?

          • george

            That’s right, it’s all a big trick by nasty tricksy men intent on tricking you. Never mind, mummy’s nice warm conspiracy theory will make it all better.

    • jrdobbsjr

      You should have been here in 2001-2 when we were only in Afghanistan….the hysterical hatred and utter contempt for our troops dripped from every article. For some reason their wearing sunglasses in the desert was particularly offensive to them.

    • silqworm

      9/11 was an inside job. How else do you explain WTC 7? What about Guiliani saying “they just told us to leave, (WTC 1) is going down in 10 minutes”? What about the nano-thermite? Where is the plane and passengers that supposedly it the Pentagon? What about Larry Silverstein saying “I told them to pull it”? It’s obvious that 9//11 was staged by Bush and Cheney and the rest of the neo-cons, along with the Democratic Establishment as will, including the Clintons.

      • pedestrianblogger
        • george

          I keep wondering, PB, where all these world-is-upside-down types are coming from lately. They would be unusually foam-flecked and slavering, even if this were Pravda The Gu+rdian. I’m used to a lot of wrongness on the Internet, and a lot of nastiness too, but these nutters manage to combine the two with such ease that you wonder how they get dressed by themselves in the morning.

  • Keith D

    It hasn’t.American people,as opposed to the POTUS,have no desire to ally themselves with Islamist monsters.

  • Richard_Iowa

    Big disappointment as Obama was wanting to get some drone practice in. BTW – get your stinking foot off the desk.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Only 23% of US citizens support attacking Syria. Which means at least 23% of US citizens have no idea where Syria is located.

  • David Govett

    America has lost its appetite—for Obama.

  • rob232

    This is all a smokescreen.
    The Americans have been wanting to invade Syria for years but couldn’t manage it with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging at the same time. Now they have controlled these areas Syria is next on the list. The chemical weapons are a pretext. This incident has been prepared for us. After Syria has been devastated the next in line is Iran.
    This is all part of a plan and we should not have anything to do with it.

    • cyllan

      have you found the aliens in area 51 yet?

  • erzengle

    It is not just war people are tired of, but the rancid rhetoric seeking to impress on them the need to kill people for their own good. Kerry is now saying that the west must not be silent spectators to the slaughter; no doubt he thinks we should join in and kill even more people by raining tomahawk cruse missiles down on the populous from the moral high ground, which is rapidly dissolving beneath our feet.

    Whatever happens, the answer is always, by a curious coincidence, an escalation of the war on terror, which has raged on for over a decade with no end in sight, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead and even more homeless and destitute. This moral posturing has wrecked Iraq, Libya and now Assad, who is such a obliging fellow, has apparently provided us with the excuse to do what Russia and China blocked us from doing last year. No doubt in due course the Iranians’ will provide us with an excuse to wreck their country as well. And all this slaughter is done under the banner of good intentions. It’s all humbug!

    • Augustus

      Maybe they’re having their own Thirty Years’ War.

  • raymond francis jones

    America has left the age of justification as world policemen,They are now in their anti God phase,which will end after much suffering.

  • kinghmong

    But we aren’t going to put boots on the ground!

  • StoptheWars

    America has spend entirely too much time being controlled by AIPAC and Israel-firsters in the foreign policy arena. It’s time we started acting like Americans again, and fought wars only when it is in our best interests.

  • Mike

    Obama, like Cameron was looking for a legacy moment and they both failed in getting support. Had they got support that legacy would surely have been the same one of Blairs.

    Now Obama is rowing back as fast as he can after another ‘foot in mouth’ moment and the white house spin doctors are busy rewriting his script. What Obama needs is a pair of those new Google glasses so his aides can keep a portable teleprompter running whenever he’s let out alone to speak their message rather than his uncensored rants.

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