President Obama is not a stupid man. After more than four years in the White House, he cannot be called a naive man or an inexperienced leader. He is not, despite the suspicions of some of his angrier critics, actively seeking to undermine the prestige and the power of the United States. So why has the Syria war been such a “problem from Hell” for this president? More specifically, why did President Obama fail so abysmally to get public opinion and the Congress behind him, when at last and reluctantly he called for a limited American military response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war?
Longtime readers will know that I divide American foreign policy into four schools of thought. Hamiltonians (well represented among the old Republican foreign policy establishment) want the United States to follow the trail blazed by Great Britain in its day: to build a global commercial and security system based on sea power and technological leadership, maintaining a balance of power in key geopolitical theaters and seeking to attract rivals or potential rivals like China into our system as, in Robert Zoellick’s phrase, “responsible stakeholders.” Wilsonians also want the United States to build a world order, but to anchor it in liberal human rights practices and international law rather than in the economic and security frameworks that Hamiltonians prefer. Those two globalist schools dominate the foreign policy establishment’s thought about the world we live in, and have done so since the 1940s.
There are two other schools that are home-focused rather than globalist. They are less interested in changing the world around the United States than in keeping the United States safe from the world. Jeffersonians have historically sought to avoid war and foreign entanglements at all costs; Jacksonians have been suspicious of foreign adventures, but strongly believe in national defense and support a strong military and want decisive action against any threat to the United States, its honor, or its treaty allies. Jeffersonians are generally opposed to almost any war other than a war of self defense following a direct enemy attack; Jacksonians aren’t interested in global transformation but will generally back robust American responses to anything they see as a security threat or a threat to America’s honor and reputation abroad.
Like many liberal Democrats, President Obama is trying to combine two schools of American foreign policy thought: much like Jimmy Carter, he believes that America needs a “progressive” foreign policy. In practice, that means he is trying to combine the cool headed, realist, low key foreign policy approach of the Jeffersonian school with the global transformation agenda of Woodrow Wilson. It didn’t work for Jimmy Carter and so far it doesn’t seem to be doing President Obama much good either. Mixing the introverted realism of low-risk, low engagement Jeffersonian foreign policy with the inspiring Wilsonian quest to transform the world is hard to do under the best of circumstances; President Obama’s circumstances are not the best.
The Jeffersonian Surge
Foreign policy Jeffersonians come in two basic flavors. There are the conservative Jeffersonians like the Pauls père et fils who like small government at home and abroad, and there are progressive Jeffersonians like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama who oppose the military-industrial complex, fear the consequences of endless wars for American civil liberties at home, and worry about the endless dangers and complications for American foreign policy arising from the messianic ideology of “American exceptionalism.”
At the moment, both progressive Jeffersonians to the left of the administration and conservative Jeffersonians to its right are cheering leakers of NSA secrets and booing the prospect of military engagement in Syria, but the differences between them are fundamental and longstanding. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald would be unlikely cabinet picks in a Rand Paul administration.
The Paulites, the right Jeffersonians, are intellectually consistent. They think aggressive domestic policy by the federal government is a danger to domestic liberties, and they think the same thing about an aggressive foreign policy. Big government at home gets us a bloated and inefficient welfare state, crony capitalism, corruption and an empowered over-class of bureaucrats whose goal is to amass power and wealth for themselves and will not stop until they have bankrupted and/or enslaved the whole country. They think about foreign policy the same way. If the US gets too ambitious overseas, we’ll end up with a swollen and expensive defense and intelligence machine. The NSA, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security will use bogus war ’emergencies’ to classify everything in sight as they attack civil liberties. The US will get in bed with horrible foreign governments who hate liberty; our networks of global alliances will make war more likely because we will be poking our noses where they don’t belong, getting involved in quarrels that are none of our business and generating hatred against us on the part of foreigners who resent the part we feel called on to play in their own affairs.
This “pure play” conservative Jeffersonianism went into partial eclipse in the 1940s as the triple shocks of the Depression, World War Two and the Cold War convinced several American generations that it was better to nip problems in the bud overseas than to wait for them to reach their full strength and head for our shores, but the failures of both liberal and conservative internationalist administrations combined with America’s military supremacy after the end of the Cold War have given the classic Jeffersonians a new lease on life. America doesn’t face any military peer competitors and the world is a messy, ugly and unsatisfying place in which to intervene. Why not cut risks and costs, and stay home?
The conservative Jeffersonian has no problem figuring out a Syria policy: stay out. A far off war between two groups that both hate us is not our fight. None of our allies are threatened by anything that is happening in Syria; Assad’s country is imploding into chaos rather than exploding into a war of aggression. This is a war that the United States can miss. The right-Jeffersonian perspective isn’t particularly concerned about chemical weapons. After all, many Jeffersonians would reason, it is not America’s job to police the world. Assad is a horrible ruler and his use of chemical weapons is despicable, but it is not our job to stop or to punish him. For America to take on the ‘global meliorist’ mission of stamping out evil dictators and unsavory civil war practices, we would have to turn our society into an armed camp, engage in endless Iraq-style wars, bankrupt ourselves and reap the hatred and resentment of humanity as we inevitably botched the job.
One of President Obama’s biggest problems as he struggled to give teeth to his ‘red line’ on chemical warfare was that conservative Jeffersonians are on a roll, reaching levels of popularity they haven’t seen since Charles Lindbergh went into eclipse as a foreign policy expert after Pearl Harbor. This is partly because the public is disgusted with more than a decade of establishment wars in the Middle East that don’t seem to be going anywhere good, and partly because Jacksonians tune out when they don’t see a security threat and don’t trust the President. The dovish, neo-isolationist wing of the Republican Party base is energized and organized against this President and all of his global adventures; the more hawkish wing of mass public opinion (including many of the white working class Democrats who voted for Hillary against Obama in 2008) doesn’t trust or believe this President on the subject of national security.
Losing The Jacksonians
The Jeffersonians are almost always against military action, but what changed this time is that when President Obama sounded the trumpet, the Jacksonians didn’t respond. Jacksonians don’t see any connection between President Obama’s proposed limited strikes against Assad and the safety of their homes and families. Jacksonians don’t believe in humanitarian wars, they don’t believe in limited wars, and they neither trust nor respect President Obama. As a result, the mass of American Jacksonian opinion yawned and changed the channel when President Obama took to the airwaves. After his bizarre time-limited Afghan surge and the “lead from behind” Libya intervention, a humanitarian war with no discernible strategic rationale, and a war that Jacksonsians chiefly remember as the prelude to what most of them consider a feckless US response to the Benghazi attack, Jacksonians have tuned the President out. They wouldn’t cross the street for him, much less go to war.
For now, many of them are behaving like Jeffersonians; they are bored with foreign policy, don’t trust the policy establishment in either party, and feel they were burned by the Bush administration wars and then burned again by what they see as this President’s poor war leadership and what they perceive as his deep cultural disdain for socially conservative lower middle class white people. They won’t fight for this President if they can help it, and won’t support him except in the face of what they see as a direct, Pearl Harbor like attack on the United States.
With the Jacksonians deactivated, President Obama has what he may have thought he wanted; temporarily at least the United States has become something like a European country, profoundly unwilling to use force in foreign affairs. There are still hawkish voices among the elite, but the mass base for a foreign policy built on the expansive use of American military power wants nothing to do with anything President Obama suggests.
The White House took the Jacksonians for granted, and assumed that their patriotic impulses would take over when the President sounded the alarm. It was a mistake, and with Jacksonians disengaged, President Obama will now have trouble every time he seeks money or backing for any dramatic venture overseas — humanitarian, military or trade related. Those who don’t understand American politics very well, unfortunately including some of our adversaries and rivals overseas, will conclude that America has become a weak nation. That is not quite accurate; President Obama has become a weak president in international politics at least for now, but another leader would be able to revive public support for a more ambitious foreign policy just as Ronald Reagan was able to call on political energies that President Carter could not.
When Progress and Jefferson Meet
The President has problems with public opinion because his own worldview leads him to take stands in foreign policy that appear logical and moral to him but that strike many other Americans from different schools as bizarre and nonsensical. Progressive Jeffersonians, those who possess the foreign policy tendency that shapes many of President Obama’s responses, live in a complicated intellectual universe. While conservative Jeffersonians want a limited government at home and abroad, progressive Jeffersonians are torn. Yes, they fear blowback from foreign entanglements, worry about the consequences of a national security state on civil liberties, and view the crony capitalism and sophisticated lobbying of the military industrial complex with alarm.
But progressive Jeffersonians have a split view of the state. They believe in a strong, transformational state at home. Both types of Jeffersonianism were rooted originally in agrarian politics. Thomas Jefferson spoke for American farmers who feared an alliance between big business and the strong federal republic that Alexander Hamilton wanted to create. Progressive Jeffersonianism emerged after the Civil War as increasingly hard pressed farmers began to look to the federal government to protect them from railroads and other powerful corporations, and to provide income and price supports as family farms gradually became less economically sustainable. As socialism failed to take root among American workers in the 20th century, the American left shifted from a social democratic to a progressive Jeffersonian vocabulary to describe its politics and goals.
Conservative Jeffersonians want an unambitious, limited foreign policy because they want to preserve an American system of limited government and personal liberty at home. They believe that the core values and old traditions of 18th- and 19th-century America provide all the basis we need for life in the contemporary world, and that it is our job to preserve and strengthen our country’s traditional values. They are not nation-builders, at home or abroad. They are nation-preservers at home and nation-defenders abroad. Progressive Jeffersonians are less content with the traditional status quo; they want a strong federal government to transform American society and culture. Thus today we see people like Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren as one on NSA spying and Syria (if Politico has it right), even as they are at daggers drawn over domestic issues.
President Obama’s strong progressive leanings give his foreign policy thinking another, Wilsonian twist. Nation building at home might be his first priority, but when he looks overseas he cannot blind himself to the wrongs he sees there. President Obama believes in universal justice; while Americans must limit their use of power overseas, when we do use that power, we should use it for good things.
What this leads to may be quite admirable, abstractly considered, from a moral and humane point of view, but leaders have a hard time translating this approach into policies that can win broad support. You claim there are universal values that guide your actions, but there are strict limits to how far you will act in defense of them. Assad’s chemical weapons were a crime against humanity, but you aren’t going to destroy his regime and either kill him in combat or bring him in for trial. You are going to chastise him, degrade his capacities. You are going to wound the tiger but not kill it. He is a moral monster who commits unspeakable depravity, but you are going to clip his wings rather than crush him beneath your feet.
You are going to start a war that you do not intend to fight to the finish. As we saw, administration officials were falling all over themselves trying to tell the public that the war they planned was big enough to be effective, but small and inoffensive at the same time. It would hurt Assad, but not help the Sunni radicals who seek to supplant him. This is intellectually supple but politically toxic. Most of those Americans who might be willing to use force internationally hate limited wars and complicated strategies involving three way bank shots and intricately calculated moral balances. They don’t think that’s how war works, and they don’t have much respect for those who disagree. The Obama administration’s comically inept attempts to describe its proposed policy in Syria only reinforced this contempt.
Meanwhile, it is fatally easy for progressives to get tangled in the toils of international law. There are no treaties and no broadly accepted, formally established concepts of international relations that justify the kind of humanitarian action in Syria that President Obama once wanted and toward which he may yet be forced to return. The Security Council offers no cover. President Assad has been scrupulously careful to avoid acts of war with his neighbors; like a good Westphalian tyrant, he only murders his own. If the United States attacks Syria to enforce the “international norm” against chemical warfare, it is undertaking something quite radical. It is saying in effect that international law is limited by and subject to a higher moral law, and that when the President of the United States deems that the letter of international law is in conflict with its spirit, it is his right and may well be his duty to adjust the situation with cruise missiles.
By what must have seemed very natural and logical steps, President Obama’s progressive worldview led him into a logically absurd and politically unsustainable dead end. At every step along the way, he carefully and thoughtfully balanced conflicting values and points of view. He ended up proposing to violate international law to uphold universal values against a regime evil and dangerous enough to bomb but not wicked or threatening enough to overthrow. In the service of this dubious vision he announced that he would consult the Congress without being bound by its result. The President told the country that the war in Syria constitutes a security threat, but he was unable to persuade the public that his stand against the moral evil of chemical weapons would advance the security interests of the United States in a complex and ugly civil war.
The nation recoiled from the incoherence, half measures and inner contradictions of a policy too elegant, too nuanced, too delicately balanced for the rough and tumble of war. The President’s approach to international relations led him to call for a war that the country wanted nothing to do with, and has deeply and quite possibly permanently alienated that part of public opinion which is at least potentially capable of supporting military action abroad. He is now scrambling to salvage some vestige of credibility from the debacle; we wish him well in this. The American people gain nothing when their President looks weak to the world.
Worse, none of the policy problems that led President Obama to call for military action have been solved. Talks about dismantling Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile are largely irrelevant to the urgent foreign policy problems the Syrian situation has created. Jihadi groups are getting better trained, better armed, better connected financially in the heart of the Middle East, and President Obama seems (from what is publicly known at any rate) to have no ability to do anything to halt this momentous and threatening change. The horror in Syria (a strategic nightmare as well as a moral obscenity) continues to unfold, and the President of the United States has no idea what to do.