Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Who's Side?

Via Ross, Robert Kagan:

A majority of Americans . . . may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.

… To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection. Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.

. . . vs. Daniel Larison:

Obama may be closer to the public’s preferences than his hawkish critics are, but on multiple issues he has still been far more hawkish or assertive than the public wants.

Ross opines:

[R]ather than trying to read the public’s response in ideological terms, maybe it’s more reasonable to look at what [Syria and Snowden] had in common: They both made the White House look incompetent.

There is some truth in all three of these analyses, and I will offer a fourth. Larison is correct that our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has dampened our foreign adventurism, but it is too much to hope that it has extinguished it; that, unfortunately, will require much more than a couple of grinding, dead-end conflicts. Nothing short of a WWII-level defeat as Germany and Japan suffered it would fundamentally alter the American character, a character with an interventionist enthusiasm going back through both world wars and the Spanish American War to the Civil War. So Kagan is in that sense correct: The public may choose an isolationist turn, but few will love it.

Which begs the question: are we actually getting isolationism? Or just impotent failure. In this sense Ross is correct: Americans hate failure, and love victory. (I suspect that Americans are not alone in this sentiment.) But Ross misses what makes the Obama administration's foreign policy so appalling to isolationists and interventionists alike: it isn't so much that he has objectively failed (although that may be true), it's that it he has staked so much rhetorical ground that he hasn't delivered.

Let me reach for an analogy. As my readers are aware, the Speakership of John Boehner is almost universally reviled across the political spectrum; it likely survives only because the revilers have different visions of what we want to replace it. Speaking for myself and many members of the TEA party / alt-right / conservative insurgency, the central component of our Boehner-bashing is his continual flirtation with amnesty for illegal aliens.
Now, objectively, a Boehner defender (or rather, a hypothetical Boehner defender, since I haven't actually read an actual Boehner defender) might point out that the fact amnesty is not already law can be credited to Boehner. This has the benefit of being true insofar as there are sufficient number of Republican quislings to give the Democrats sufficient votes to pass amnesty in an up-or-down vote, a vote that Boehner has personally prevented. Certainly, this is the perspective of amnesty advocates who blame Boehner for its thus-far failure. And yet . . . Boehner's periodic professions of fealty to the idea of amnesty, while doing nothing for his standing among amnesty supporters, robs him of any credit from those of who are afraid of what he might evenutally do.

A similar dynamic is at work on perceptions of Obama's foreign policy. Yes, he ultimately didn't bomb Syria, but his rhetoric last summer was premised on the idea that intervention would be a worthwhile enterprise, and in the context of the recent thrust of our policy it certainly lent credence to the expectation (and fear) that intervention would be forthcoming. And it's precisely that uncertainty created by the disjunction between rhetoric and action that earns him contempt across the board. If you're Kagan, he's a coward. If you're Larison, he's an imperialist, however temporarily frustrated. If you're Douthat, he's a failure.

I should acknowledge here that I don't have access to all the information that either Boehner or Obama has. Boehner may know or believe that the amnesty feignts are necessary to preserve that fraction of Wall Street money that flows to Republican campaigns. Obama may know or believe that his bluffs are necessary to make the Syrians behave better. But the public wants to know: what side are you on? We isolationists want a president who says, "We wish the people of Syria (and Ukraine, and Libya, and Egypt, and Kosovo) well, and will pursue peaceful resolutions to all conflicts diplomatically, but otherwise don't involve ourselves in the civil wars of places where our interest and influence are limited." But we never get that. We get thundering statements about how this or that foreign conduct is "unacceptable", and always seem at the brink of another grinding, dead-end conflict.


heresolong said...

I would suggest that Iraq, in particular, is only a "grinding dead end conflict" because President Obama chose to make it so. We were succeeding quite nicely there under the previous president and it could easily be argued that the failure is because we left too soon, before the Iraqis were prepared to fight the long battle on their own. Afghanistan otoh has long been known as the "graveyard of empires" and there is no indication that we were winning versus maintaining a truce that would last until we left, no matter how far in the future that was.

Dr. Φ said...

There was a point a few years back when I thought that the marginal cost of keeping Iraq in our column might be low enough going forward to make it worth it.