On the headstone of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, whatever else may be written there, will be in capital letters “IRAQ.” And on the headstone of Barack H. Obama’s foreign policy, whatever else may be written there, will be in capital letters “SYRIA.” Those two words also comprise the essence of the second strategy trap the next President will face. Even if he or she is a sober, pragmatic internationalist of a more or less traditional stamp—something that alas, can no longer be taken for granted—it is a trap the President must walk into.
Even those of us who favored the Iraq War will acknowledge that one of its chief premises—an active and dangerous nuclear program—was wrong. Even those of us who participated in the formulation of strategy for it will admit that it took the United States government too long to understand the complex war upon which we had embarked, and that the conflict was marred by inexcusable organizational infighting and dispersion of efforts and by errors of direction, the price of which was paid in the blood of our soldiers and of Iraqi civilians. Even those of us who, nonetheless, believe that it was worth something to eject Saddam from power and who contend that by 2008 many of the earlier errors had been redeemed will admit that the war caused acute strains with our allies and diverted resources and executive energy from other threats in the Middle East and Asia.
Similarly, even those who think that the humanitarian case for intervention in Syria was not strong enough for action must admit that the losses in life—nearing half a million by some accounts—are appalling. Even those who believe that there were no good options must concede that the declaration of meaningless red lines dealt a debilitating blow to American credibility around the world. Even those who regret civilian deaths but think it matters little how innocents are slaughtered will flinch as a brutal government and its allies target its own citizens with poison gas and barrel bombs. No one, no matter what their position on Syria, can deny that the ensuing refugee crisis has the potential to destabilize Europe, and that other conflicts originating in Syria (between Turkey and Russia, for example) have a real possibility of spreading.
The next President will inherit the tangible consequences of these episodes: an Iraq fractured by sectarian war, in the hands of a government more than a little beholden to Iranian influence, and the chaos that is Syria. The old Middle Eastern order was already beginning to break down by the beginning of this century, which is why the so-called Arab spring of 2011 swept through countries that had not been touched by the Iraq or Syrian conflicts. But these wars have surely accelerated the disintegration of the Middle East state system. What replaces it no one can tell; multiple seething puddles of mayhem no doubt, but beyond that grim prospect it is hard to see. In the old days an imperial power might reassert order, but no external power has the desire or the intestinal fortitude for such adventures. Yet neither is chaos acceptable: unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East, as Angela Merkel and other European politicians are learning at great cost.
The intangible consequences of these wars will be no less severe. American credibility, once lost, can only be repurchased at the price of action, and probably violent action. The aversion to intervention brought about by a war that most Americans think went sour, and that they are not sure was necessary to begin with, will restrain future Presidents, no matter how hawkish their temperament or how urgent the needs they confront. Yet when the dust and smoke clear in Syria, we will see a country ruined for generations, half a million or more dead, many millions more homeless and hopeless, an Iranian-Russian condominium in the center of the Levant, and a Sunni Arab world determined to reverse the outcome of Tehran’s and Moscow’s success. That picture will make it clear that, if American action has its costs, inaction does as well, and those costs may be even greater.
Compounding the history trap will be the uses to which its component parts are put by politicians and the increasingly politicized academy. “Iraq” and “Syria” have become epithets, and professors and journalists use them as such every bit as much as the demagogues who blight this year’s presidential campaigns. Yet in so doing they merely echo the intemperance of the arguments that Americans who pay attention to foreign policy have been having with each other for years.
The temptation for a new President will be to coin a doctrine that can avoid the history trap. This will probably take the form of a commitment to swift, punitive campaigns, waged for the narrowest of purposes, and stripped of all commitment to follow up pacification or consolidation of government. This too would be a mistake. Some strategic problems simply will not lend themselves to the devastating sudden blow. When politicians talk about destroying the Islamic State, for example, they seem not to comprehend that this means rooting out that movement (or coalition of movements) from major cities with our own troops, and not just proxies. Hopes to deal with such problems by drone shots, special operations, or large scale bombing are almost certain to be disappointed. Beliefs that such wars can be won cleanly and then exited swiftly are fatuous.
No doctrine will save the next President from the strategy trap. Indeed, it was President Obama’s aversion to his predecessor’s decisions that led to a disastrous overcorrection in the Middle East. A corresponding overcorrection from a more hawkish successor would be a similar error.
The theme of this series is that strategic traps can only be managed, not escaped or neutralized. In this case, part of the challenge for a new President will be explaining the history trap to the American people. But he or she will have to do much more than that. The United States has entered a new, more complicated, and more dangerous era of world politics. The White House is not merely a “bully pulpit,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it, but a lectern, and a President, particularly in an era like this, must be an educator as well as a leader.
Although the new President should not dwell on Iraq and Syria, he or she will have to explain what lessons to take from those episodes. He or she will similarly have to articulate to the American people the case for their continuing to assume the leading role in international politics, a course openly and forcefully opposed by politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. It will not be enough to direct foreign policy, including the use of force, through executive action and the occasional, cursory press conference.
The power of the Presidency, Richard Neustadt once famously argued, is merely the power to persuade. The history trap means that, now more than ever, the rhetorical powers of the President will be indispensable for constructing a national security policy that is both acceptable and prudent. He or she will have not only to rebuild American foreign policy for a divided and conflictual world, but for a fractured politics at home. That will require explaining the unpalatable truths that Iraq will not be the last murky war we will fight; and that Syria will not be the only tragedy we do too little to stop.