Syria’s civil war: Historical forces behind “regional realities”

Critics of the Obama administration’s Syrian policy have lamented its failure to take into account regional realities. With surprising speed those realities have put the brakes on U.S. intervention. The anti-regime forces in Syria have remained deeply divided — indeed turned violently against each other — and resistant to outside guidance. Government armed forces have retained their integrity and the battlefield initiative. China and Russia have refused to sanction outside meddling. These are the obvious constraints on U.S. activism. But there are broader forces at work that deserve attention.

A good place to start is the Islamist resurgence so important to developments in Turkey, Gaza, southern Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia not to mention Syria. Islamist political movements appearing in all shapes and sizes have discomfited the monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain as well as long-established modernizing regimes with a nationalist and secular agenda such as the military-dominated ones in Egypt and Algeria.

The Syrian government dominated by the Ba’ath Party and the Assad family is one of those modernizing regimes up against disruptive Islamist currents. The Ba’ath Party, headed by Hafez al-Assad from the 1970s til his death in 2000, blended nationalism with pan-Arabic sentiments. Its secular, socialist agenda put the party-state at distinct odds with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was brutally crushed in a confrontation in 1982. As the successor to his father, Bashar al-Assad talked at first of reform but since 2011 has fought for survival against a loosely-organized, armed opposition including prominently jihadi groups. Civil war has reopened the divisive question not only of Islam’s role within Syrian political and cultural life but also of whose version of Islam should prevail. In Syria as elsewhere the answers vary depending on whether you ask in the city or the countryside or address Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawites, Druze, or Kurd.

The questions posed by a reinvigorated Islam fit neatly under the heading of nationalist contestation. Edward Said’s caution against thinking about the region in terms of “vast abstractions” that yield “little self knowledge or informed analysis” remains particularly pertinent. Civilization and identity, he contended in The Nation in October 2001), were not “shut-down, sealed-off entities” but rather fields of on-going, multifaceted ideological conflict. Were American leaders to embrace this general truth about the modern world, they might have a better chance of reaching an “informed analysis” of Syria in particular. Outsiders, it should be clear, can try to shape nationalist debates, but they are not likely to have much of a clue about the terms of the debate and even less legitimacy.

Much like nationalism, empire casts a long shadow over the Syrian crisis and the region. The United States, Britain, and France are associated with colonialism, military intervention, and cultural imperialism. They win no points for having shored up dictators, favored Israel, and cultivated a distaste for political Islam. The United States is in a particularly compromised position. While Obama insists (as he did in his Cairo speech in 2009) that the United States was not “the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” the historical record argues strongly against him. From Egypt and Palestine to Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, British overlords yielded after 1945 to the primacy of a rising power with greater financial resources and military muscle. The Americans not only followed in the British footsteps but also generally continued the strategy of indirect rule reinforced by an occasional coup, a pacification campaign now and then, and an occasional dose of gunboat diplomacy. This approach kept down the costs of empire (especially important for a weakened Britain) but it also avoided the more blatantly imperial direct rule (so distinctly at odds with the American self image).

Syria is a variant in an old story of outside interference remembered, resented, and resisted. Assad was making more than a casual observation when in an interview this year he associated empire with a “divide and conquer” strategy. “By division, I do not mean [just] redrawing national borders but rather fragmentation of identity, which is far more dangerous.” This preoccupation with the legacy of empire — economic and political as well as cultural — is region wide and to judge from a July 2013 Pew survey of public opinion makes U.S. policy distinctly suspect. A substantial proportion of respondents flatly declared the United States “an enemy” rather than “a partner.” This was the view of roughly a half to three quarters in Turkey, Lebanon, the Palestinian territory, and Pakistan and from a quarter to a third in Egypt and Jordan. In all these cases the percentage of “enemy” responses exceeded the “partner” responses.

Finally, Syria suggests the importance of bringing globalization into our mix of big, defining historical forces. The Syrian conflict has played out within a complex of transnational networks carrying most notably people (refugees and fighters), NGO’s offering humanitarian assistance to several million driven from Syria by the fighting, and digital information (most evident in the propaganda wars of the combatants). Perhaps most striking of all (and surprising to Washington) has been the capacity of genuinely international norms and institutions to make a difference. The international agreement on chemical weapons and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have effectively defused a crisis created by Obama’s careless “red line” declaration and demonstrated what American leaders seem to forget: the efficacy of international law and diplomacy and the need to take seriously other powers with divergent views (not least Russia and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council) in resolving knotty problems of the sort the Syrian civil war poses.

The absence of historical perspective in the pronouncements of the Obama administration is striking but nothing new in Washington. The denizens of the foreign policy establishment as well as the media tend to lapse into the “vast abstractions” that Said decried. The prevailing version of history is dated and superficial and applied in the main to shoring up predetermined policy, offering inspirational insights on political leadership, or affirming comforting notions of national mission. Reflecting on the particular problem of Syria highlights a general and dangerous blind spot in U.S. policy. A global power with a diminished sense of the past has few resources to illuminate the future.

Obama’s Cairo, then and now

President Obama’s “new beginning” address delivered in Cairo four years ago was filled with the high-minded platitudes that have become a hallmark of his speech making. He stood before the audience at Cairo University as the exponent of progress, peace, and cooperation. No surprise here. He made clear his opposition to “violent extremism in all of its forms.” Again no surprise. He worked his way through the list of other Washington preoccupations: stopping nuclear proliferation, cleaning up failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and managing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The passage of time has done nothing to make this address seem either fresh or illuminating.

What does stand out in retrospect is the president’s silence on the role that the United States has played as supporter of secular autocrats in the region over the last half century, often stepping in where the British or French had earlier taken control and then faltered. Far from focusing on the U.S. entanglement in the region as a source of conflict, Obama pointed instead to a set of grand abstractions — centuries-old tension between the West and Islam, colonialism, and globalization. His United States was a benevolent bystander while other powers and other forces made history and created the tensions now coursing through the Middle East.

Perhaps the most telling part of the 2009 Cairo address came when Obama chided those who have misperceived the U.S. in terms of “the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” Is it really possible he does not understand the degree to which the U.S. has been guided by self interest? Surely his aides can tell him what any textbook makes abundantly clear: that U.S. policy was long shaped by Israel, oil, and containment. Today Israel and oil persist with the terrorist threat substituting for the old communist menace.

Equally striking is Obama’s inability to see that the sustained U.S. attempt to shape the region follows closely the pattern of imperial intervention by other powers, with the tools much the same whether diplomatic pressure, the creation and support of clients, the reward of aid packages and trade deals, and the training of friendly militaries. The “crude stereotype” may be not be so crude. Indeed, like some stereotypes it may have a considerable element of truth about it.

What this speech says today — in the wake of the military coup against an elected government in Cairo — is that the change president is mostly about policy continuity. Washington’s support for autocrats is an old story. Reliance on strongmen, especially military strongmen, was a pronounced feature of the global Cold War. The Cold War, far from an aberration, built on a pattern that had become well established earlier in the century. Elected governments, Washington feared, might be swayed by popular passions or betrayed by their own immaturity. Coups whether in Iran in 1953 or in Egypt in 2013 paved the way for strongmen promising stability and accommodating U.S. interests. Alas, the clients often are less responsive than we would like. There is a long record of the tail wagging the dog. But the national security establishment has recognized that some local waywardness is part of the price of any collaborative relationship.

However anguished the Obama administration may be, it is not rudderless. It is following the course long ago marked out by an intrusive and regionally disruptive policy of “strategic realism.” Egypt is important not because it is (as that mystifying phrase has it) “a bedrock of peace” but because it blocks an Islamist party that was feeling its oats and because it guarantees easy access for U.S. armed forces so active in the region over the last two decades. Putting up with state repression is the price to pay for advancing self interest.

There is a larger price for pursuing this course. It confirms not just in the Middle East but worldwide the “crude stereotype” that Obama decried. The United States continues to prop up friendly, secular authoritarians and thus continues to feed popular antipathy and suspicion that in turn inspires the resistance we call terrorism.

This course also leaves American policy locked in a long standing contradiction, professing high minded principles, above all support for democracy, while in practice giving priority to national self interest. So even as we deepen alienation abroad, we compound our own confusion about what what we really want from this part of the world.

The Obama administration may yet decide to call a coup a coup and quit propping up the Egyptian military — and with good reason. The U.S. project in the Middle East has lost its mojo. Domestic tolerance has dwindled while the U.S. tools to shape the region are not working. But the difficulty Washington is having turning in a fresh direction is testimony to the claims of self interest and the constraints and confusion spawned by a now troubled half-century campaign of regional intervention.

Obama and Syria: Trapped in a web of words

Language is potent, a truth confirmed by President Obama’s recent, reluctant decision to escalate the U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. The President has given every sign of wanting to give priority to “nation building at home.” Important to popular welfare, this course is arguably also indispensable to shoring up the sagging foundation on which U.S. global influence rests. An electorate pinched economically and a federal government living beyond its means is going to impose international constraints. Obama is right to consider popular discontent and national insolvency big deals that deserve urgent attention.

Despite this carefully calculated commitment to national recuperation and international restraint, Obama has fallen prey to the old familiar axioms with their continuing power to shape thinking in Washington and the terms of policy debate. Read the arguments of the interventionists determined to see the Assad regime ousted. They speak of “resolve” that U.S. leaders have to demonstrate to a watching world. They point to a “responsibility” that the United States has to live up to. They invoke “interests” that demand protection. They talk of “credibility” at stake.

Each of these vaporous notion is advanced with great certitude. Each draws its strength from a foreign policy discourse that has over some seven decades served as the natural language of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Free of any detailed demonstration of the truths they encapsulate, these magic words depend on notions ingrained in the nationalist imagination to carry the day. Precisely because of its ritualistic quality and its association with nationalist and policy orthodoxy, the appeal to resolve, responsibility, interest, and credibility do not invite discussion or scrutiny. The mere pronouncement suffices. Thanks to this gossamer stuff, those clamoring for more decisive U.S. action in Syria have entangled Obama.

Yet the world in which this vocabulary gained currency has changed. This is the point that critics of deeper involvement in the Syrian crisis have made in a variety of ways. The Middle East which the interventionists with their heads filled with old truisms seek to manage is in the grip of new regional sentiments and under the sway of rising regional powers. No less important, the shape of the international community has changed with the rise of new powers impatient with U.S. dictation and uncomprehending in the face of ritual language coming out of Washington. Finally, the domestic world in which old catchwords are supposed to mobilize support is more recalcitrant. A U.S. population polarized and pinched has problems enough at home. Any attempt to decisively sway the outcome of the fighting in Syria would deepen the disarray.

Language is in its potency a trap — in this case an inducement to action even when careful consideration warns of potentially dire consequences. Put differently, the axioms handed down from earlier policy practice have demonstrated their capacity to overrule prudent calculation.

That insight leaves us with a set of genuine questions:

  • Do proponents of intervention not recognize a world transformed — or do they see changes but think they can ignore or reverse them? Do they really think the imagined glory days of the World War II and the Cold War when the magical words became orthodoxy can really be restored?
  • How long do the consequences of costly and even counterproductive decisions have to pile up before the justificatory language is discredited? Or does the accumulating damage to U.S. standing and material conditions make the comforting familiarity of the old language even more attractive?

These questions by their very nature suggest the United States is in the throes of transition, and the answers, if only we knew them, would tell us how long and difficult that transition will be.

Obama and the war on terror: toward greater realism

I’ve been a regular consumer of Barack Obama’s public statements, looking for a window into his mind. To be sure, it’s a risky business. Speech writers always to some degree get in the way, and the statements themselves can be more responses to political exigencies than expressions of faith. But those statements are by default some of the best evidence we have on the president’s perspective. (We don’t get fairly full declassification of pertinent records until some three or four decades after the event.) Moreover, my experience over the years suggests that presidential speeches often line up reasonably well with internal discussions as revealed in later declassified documents.

I confess approaching with low expectations what was advertised as a speech on the controversial drone strikes. Most of Obama’s speeches on international issues have struck me as stale and vacuous, reflecting none of the subtlety and insight that he has shown himself occasionally capable in other areas of public concern.

Reading the address delivered yesterday (23 May) at the National Defense University surprised me not just because it went well beyond the drone issue to address the conduct of the war on terror. More than that, Obama took some significant steps toward dealing with the war in terms of classical realism.

Responding to one realist proposition, Obama sought to carefully balance cost and benefit. The costs included notably the sacrifices made by members of the armed services and a massive diversion of material resources badly needed at home. Having rejected out of hand an open-ended prosecution of the war, he suggested that the lives, money, and effort invested so far had achieved significant results but had reached the point of diminishing value. Time to rebalance the commitment.

Responding to a second realist notion, Obama raised the relationship between ends and means — between U.S. goals and the methods used to realize those goals. The struggle to defend the homeland could undermine and distort vaunted American values. Practices such as detention, surveillance, and summary execution of citizens collided with ultimate U.S. goals. Similarly, while drones no less than special forces operations were attractive ways of striking at this particular enemy, the effect on the policies of states in the region and on public opinion could damage U.S. standing and prolong rather than shorten the conflict.

Alas, Obama’s realism has badly failed him on one major, difficult point — the very nature of the conflict that Americans call the war on terror. What a realist examination might suggest is, first of all, the current conflict that Obama along with most Americans conventionally imagine beginning on 9/11 is rooted in a long history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Any modern history of the region will trace in detail the pervasive pattern of U.S. intervention not to mention the resulting opposition. Read the words of Qutb and Khomeini onward to bin Laden on the close connection between U.S. actions and the resentment that has in turn bred resistance.

That resentment persists fed by continued U.S. meddling in all sorts of ways in countries across the region. Obama’s leaves no doubt that the meddling must continue. The region has to work out its destiny not on its own terms but with U.S. guidance ranging from diplomacy to political, social, and cultural development and under the shadow of a extensively deployed U.S. armed forces. “Moderates” in particular need backing against “extremist elements” and “violent extremists” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, while Washington should help “modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship” in an echo of the old and troubled faith in nation building.

Obama, who may think his war is winding down, has failed as as realist in another way. He does not take the perspective and intentions of the enemy seriously. It may be comforting but not smart to write off the other side as a collection of deranged minds delighting in terror. This dismissive view does not alter the fact that the foe has resorted to resistance that military jargon describes as asymetrical and that social sciences label as “the weapons of the weak.” Fighting the United States conventionally is a lost cause (ask Saddam Hussein), but random violence visited on the enemy population can be hard to counter.

Nor does stereotyping supply a good sense of the enemy’s commitment. The determination and sense of righteousness that matters in this war has come from various politicized forms of Islam. They have helped to inspire the dedication, solidarity, and sacrifice indispensable to sustained confrontation. Obama’s speech works hard to keep this insight at bay. It issues the usual denials that the Americans are at war with Islam and makes the predictable distinction between good Muslims who reject an ideology of violence and those led astray by the mistaken conviction “that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West.” Those on the wrong side of this imagined divide are hostile not because they have reason but becaucse they are the product of “deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred.”

Obama the realist can get only so far before lapsing into familiar clichés. Perhaps his imagination has constrained him or the politically loaded popular images of the enemy have intimidated him. Nonetheless he deserves credit for making significant progress toward a policy couched in more sensible terms. Let’s hope in time he and other policymakers will move toward a more realistic public assessment of the other side of the “global war on terror.” The first step might be to find another name for this conflict.

The Iraq War: Learning lessons, ignoring history

Talk about a gap between serious academic history and the policy community. The New York Times, which has made a big deal of the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offers a stunning case in point. At least five different items in the paper for Wednesday, 20 March, seek some perspective from “authorities” heavy tilted toward policy specialists and former Bush administration officials. There is nary a historian of any sort to be seen.

The paper’s editorial on the anniversary advances several startling propositions suggested by the U.S. experience in Iraq. These include getting our intelligence right, approaching decisions for war with an open mind. and understanding our regional influence is limited. Of course, nothing about how the press should guard against get rolled by the White House in the run up to war!

One of the David Petraeus acolytes, John Nagl, offers an op-ed that adds an additional deep insight: war holds surprises so military leaders need to be flexible. Unfortunately nothing more profound can be expected from a counter-insurgency camp whose use of history over the years has been at best tendentious.

David Sanger’s report on the lack of consensus on lessons learned features extensive quotes from ex-Bush officials offering predictable justifications. Sanger clearly has no historians in his Rolodex so what he reports comes from the echo chamber that is the policy world.

Five experts jump into a debate over whether removing Saddam Hussein was a good idea. No card-carrying historians of Iraq, the Middle, or U.S. foreign policy in this mix.

Perhaps the most revealing piece is Peter Baker’s treatment of Washington’s relative silence on the anniversary. He notes that the capital like the country more generally “seems happy to wash its hands of Iraq.” The real lesson learned, his piece suggests, is to forget wars that don’t go well. Just celebrate the ones you win. Forgetting may already be a sturdy feature of the American way of war. Silence followed the aftermath of the conquest of the Philippines, the frustrating war in Korea, and the Vietnam War (at least for a decade).

Anyone in the lesson business who wants to ignore history does so at their own peril. As any historian worth their salt will tell you, assessing a war just ten years gone is very difficult. Not enough time has passed for dispassionate perspective; partisanship and wishful thinking are still strong (a point that Times inadvertently drives home). Moreover, the evidence on which any compelling judgment depends is thin; it will take years for the historical record to become full enough to tell us with confidence who did what to whom and why.

But along with these cautions historians would make an additional point. The past is always helpful in setting context, and it is indispensable in cases so close to the present and so poorly documented as Iraq is. How did U.S. involvement in the region help set the stage for the Iraq imbroglio? Were there long-term forces or preoccupations in play that may have helped drive U.S. policymakers toward their decisions? What other wars offer parallels with Iraq that might be revealing? What long-term developments internationally and at home might have facilitated or obstructed the march to war?

Historians pursuing these kinds of questions can shed badly needed light on important issues otherwise for the moment necessarily obscure. Perhaps here’s the issue the Times staff might have explored: how can history serve as a resource to help us understand Iraq and our role in the world more generally?

Nationalism and the debate over U.S. hegemony

[The following is my contribution to a symposium on the end of the American century that appears in the most recent issue of the RSA Journal (Revista di Studi Americani) published by the Italian Association of North American Studies. I am grateful to the editors for permission to post my essay here.]


I devoted the Conclusion of The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) to the issue of hegemony. Returning to the topic today, I find that the fate of U.S. hegemony has become a hot topic that evokes both pessimistic and optimistic appraisals.

Historians and political scientists with a historical bent have gravitated toward the view that U.S. hegemony is in deep trouble. David S. Mason’s The End of the American Century (2009) is a good case in point. Mason surveys the erosion of American dominance in compelling domestic and international detail. His conclusion: “At a minimum, the United States will suffer decline in wealth, standard of living, and global influence” (215). Others convinced of the weakness of the U.S. position emphasize that dominance even at its zenith in the post-World War II years was limited and from the 1970s was badly battered. (Good recent summations of this perspective can be found in the Andrew Bacevich and Walter LaFeber contributions to The Short American Century: A Postmortem [2012], edited by Bacevich.)

Those pessimistic about long-term U.S. prospects can point to the doleful conclusion of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the broadly damaging 2008 economic crisis, the frustrating resistance on the part of regional powers (from Iran and Russia to China and North Korea), and the prolonged and ineffectual hand-wringing over fiscal affairs.

Despite this evidence for U.S. decline, some observers cling to optimism. Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (2012), embodies that tendency in spades. Lieber makes the slide in U.S. influence a recent development, dating it from the 1990s, and he minimizes the ground the U.S. has lost since the triumph over the Soviet Union. Invoking familiar neo-conservative themes, Lieber contends that lost ground can be recovered through social and ideological mobilization at home. By restoring something akin to the old Cold War outlook, Americans will regain the confidence and policymakers the capacity critical to the continuation of global leadership. Thus can the United States live up to its special mission in the world and serve as the indispensable guarantor of international order, security, and liberal values.

International relations realists seem to maintain a guarded optimism about U.S. prospects grounded in a conviction that policymakers in Washington can preserve U.S. dominance if they correctly read and adjust to the current configuration of interstate power, the rise of new non-state actors, and the challenge of acute trans-national problems. Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson in The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas (2010), for example, think a salvage operation possible. U.S. leaders have only to bring their policy in line with the world as it is today rather than with a world nostalgically remembered. To take another example, G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (2011) contends that the liberal global order that the U.S. put in place is still basically intact and amenable to U.S. leadership. This realist tendency to make continued U.S. influence dependent on reading international developments aright is also evident in the U.S. government’s recent forecast, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (2012).

In reviewing these divergent pessimistic and optimistic approaches, I am struck by the absence of attention to U.S. nationalism as an element in the decline equation. The Tea Party revolt and the seemingly eternal presidential election campaign have provided forceful reminders of how badly frayed the national consensus has become and how important national consensus is as the basis for politics and policymaking. Nationalism’s conceptual utility is precisely its capacity to get us to reflect on what collective views Americans have embraced and how those views with both domestic and international ramifications have changed.

Bringing nationalism into the picture is strikingly easy to do. The ground has been prepared by a large, sophisticated collection of theoretical writings going back to the 1980s, and on that ground has arisen a considerable body of historical scholarship on various facets and phases of U.S. nationalism. This rich literature can help us think about the currently troubled U.S. position in three basic ways:

–First, U.S. nationalism is important today as earlier because it provides indispensable framing for policymakers by addressing the three preoccupations central to most nationalisms. It tells us who qualifies as a full citizen and thus has a genuine voice in national affairs, what kind of role the state should play as the embodiment and proponent of nationalist values, and what foreign forces pose a threat to the nation’s survival and values so serious that they require a collective response.

–Second, consistent with a central theoretical point, U.S. nationalism is not fixed but rather has evolved. It has arguably gone through three stages over the last two and half centuries. The most recent ran from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s and was organized around and promoted by a modernizing, burgeoning American state. This state-dominated nationalism came to accept and even advance an expanded understanding of citizenship (overcoming previous racial and gender barriers). And it was fixated on and galvanized by a string of international dangers beginning with the Kaiser’s Germany and Bolshevism, continuing with Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan, and concluding in its heyday with a communist monolith that gave way to distinct Soviet and Chinese threats.

–Finally, U.S. nationalism, again true to the general pattern, has never been static. What it means to be an American has always been contested — and quite intensely so at those points of transition from one phase of nationalist faith to another. We arguably find ourselves today at one of those points of transition with the old state-centered nationalism losing its grip.

Our current transition is in part the result of the demise of the world of empire and interstate conflict in which state-centered nationalism took shape. Today’s globalized world poses different challenges and imposes different constraints. The transition is also a result of a striking changes in U.S. society since the 1960s. The most important may be the rise of a consumer regime that has thoroughly reshaped the basic outlook as well as daily activities of most Americans (a development adroitly sketched by Emily Rosenberg in the Bacevich volume). But there are other contenders for the loyalty of Americans including the free-market religion so assiduously promoted over the last three or four decades not to mention a resuscitated version of the old statist faith along the lines articulated by Lieber.

Only when some alternative view speaks in a clear and broadly appealing way about the nature of citizenship, the role of the state, and the identity of the “dangerous other” will the country be able to move on to a new, fourth stage of nationalism, and only then will U.S. leaders gain the policy compass they so badly need. When and how this transition might occur no one can confidently predict. Even more difficult to anticipate is what impact a new nationalism might have on U.S. hegemony — whether to breathe new life into it or to intensify its problems.

This is only a sketch of the contours of U.S. nationalism as I think it applies to the current hegemonic disarray. Readers wanting more detail can turn to my December 2012 Krasno lecture ( An even fuller treatment should in time appear in a book tentatively (and perhaps immodestly) titled “Bridging the Gap: Academic History and the Future of U.S. Foreign Relations.”

The new foreign policy consensus: A word of caution

Over the several years American leaders and the public have been edging toward a new consensus. They have had enough of the international sturm und drang that has prevailed since 9/11 and seem resolved on concentrating on a daunting collection of domestic ills. Not least among these are lagging growth rates, rising inequalities, and swelling deficits. The recent presidential election seems to have validated the consensus. Domestic issues dominated; foreign affairs stayed in the shadows. The accelerated timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan was received with a shrug. The Benghazi controversy failed to gain traction with the electorate.

The new consensus has been confirmed since Obama’s victory. His inaugural address announced the end of a decade of war and the start of a process of national reinvention meant to address challenges on the home front. References to maintaining U.S. military power, preserving alliances, and advancing global democracy and development were distinctly pro forma. Secretary of State nominee John Kerry in his opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations committee played the new line pitch perfect. He stressed the priority of getting the U.S. fiscal house in order and more generally handling the national business in a more efficient and timely fashion.

However sensible this new consensus may be, it suffers from a major flaw: its profound vulnerability. There are at least three directions from which threats may arise.

One is the continuing, sweeping U.S. commitment to global leadership. Can the Obama administration and the political class more generally stand aside when crises erupt in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, or East Asia? So far so good on Syria and Mali and Somalia and Yemen. But in none of these has the conflict fully played out. And who can predict what other trouble spots may yet “demand” U.S. engagement? This cautionary point is supported by striking cases of presidents whose domestic agendas were derailed by unanticipated events abroad. Think of Woodrow Wilson and World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and wars in Europe and the Asia, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, Jimmy Carter and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

A second threat is the ongoing confrontations with regional powers in which too much politically and ideologically has been invested to be called off. Iran and North Korea are acute concerns. Add to the list China, which has become the target of the Obama administration’s much heralded pivot toward Asia, as well as Putin’s Russia with its prickly relationship with the United States. The U.S. notion of global leadership has over the last half century expressed itself above all else in terms of repeated and widespread regional interventions. The new consensus assumes what is palpably untrue — that the American leaders will retreat — or will be allowed to retreat — when regional challenges arise.

If international chance or regional circumstance don’t disrupt the new consensus, then political frustration may do the job. It is easy to imagine domestic renovation miscarrying or at least bogging down as a result of the deep divisions over how precisely to address an accumulation of ills. At what point do political forces at loggerheads step away from seemingly insoluble problems at home in favor of foreign issues, especially where the vaunted U.S. military superiority can be put to work? Presidents have a long track record of absorbing themselves in foreign policy where they enjoy latitude after finding their hands tied on the domestic front. How much more satisfying to play commander-in-chief than pleader-and-negotiator-in-chief operating in a noisy, crowded domestic arena. Conservatives frustrated by the growth of government programs have their own reason to champion overseas adventures. Better the energies of the American state be directed safely abroad and away from domestic aggrandizement. The neo-conservatives who championed and then helped direct the Iraq invasion acted on precisely this conviction.

The new consensus makes sense. The country suffers from real problems that deserve urgent attention. But those championing the new restraint should realize they are hostages not just to events abroad but also to their own deeply ingrained commitment to a broad, ill-defined, and highly militarized version of global leadership.