The first casualty of war is truth, according to a popular old saw, and in the case of the as-yet-unlaunched Syrian war the second casualty is likely to be America’s formerly robust foreign policy.
There is an isolationist streak in America’s character which reasserts itself from time to time, and we seem to have arrived at once again at one of those times. All the polling indicates a deep skepticism among the American people about any intervention in Syria’s brutal civil war, despite the President Barack Obama’s plausible allegations that the ruling regime there has used chemical weapons against its people, and there’s no mistaking a sense that it reflects a deep skepticism about the very notion of American as the enforcer of international norms.
Such skepticism has always been found on both the left and right of the political spectrum, and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are now expressing opposition to any action in Syria. The president might yet win Congressional approval for his planned missile strikes, which he promises which will be insignificant nature and done with in a short time, but it looks likely the vote will nonetheless reflect significant opposition within both parties. Naysaying Democrats will cite all the same arguments that candidate Obama made back in’ 07 and ’08 about the Iraq war, citing the folly of trusting unproved intelligence, acting without the consensus approval of the international community, and of course using military power than cultural sensitivity and soothing rhetoric to solve problems, and no amount of assurances of that the war will be barely noticeable will lessen their disappointment that Obama has now tossed aside all that campaign blather. Some Republicans will vote against action because of the promises it will be limited, and thus almost certainly ineffectual, as well as a suspicion that such a bungling administration which can’t line up any allies other than famously feckless France shouldn’t be trust with war powers, but others will vote “no” because of the same weariness with America’s global role found on the left.
The president will also find support on both sides of the aisle, of course. Formerly dovish House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi is among the sudden hawks on the who will support their president no matter how cravenly partisan they might seem, her party’s formidable discipline will force many likeminded Democrats into line, and the party’s numerous internationalists will also vote with Obama despite the lack of allies and international sanction they have usually insisted on. House Speaker John Boehner is among Republicans who plan to vote for an authorization of military action, even though he surely knows it won’t stop Obama from disparaging him and his party as a heartless plutocrats during the upcoming debt-ceiling negotiations, and despite Boehner’s promise not to “whip” his members a principled disregard for international opinion many other internationalists in the party will join him.
No matter how the arguments play out in Congress, the isolationists are likely to win public opinion. Even such a perfunctory war as Obama promises cannot win support from a left that still seethes over an Iraq war that enjoyed more domestic and international support at its outset and was based on more convincing arguments and pursued by a more steadfast president, and most of the right are too reluctant to support yet another ineffectual effort by a president they do no trust. Those in the middle are tired of hearing about wars and the always troublesome rest of the world, and now they’re even reading critical coverage of the president in the big newspapers, and it’s not as if the president and his equally hapless spokesmen are making a compelling case to rebut all the criticisms. With little good likely to come from a few symbolic missiles lobbed at Syria, and with all of the chemical arsenal safely tucked away among the civilian population during the interminable lead-up to the strikes, the case for intervention will be all the harder to make afterwards even if it doesn’t provoke a catastrophic response from the Syrians, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, or any of the other bad actors on the other side.
The public’s displeasure with this mess will provide an opportunity for such conservative isolationists as Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, who has assumed a leading role in the opposition with his aggressive interrogation of Secretary of State John Kerry during Senate hearings on the war. Five years of slow growth and stubborn unemployment have caused many Americans to question if high taxes, huge deficits, and hyper-regulation are the right economic policy, revelations about the Internal Revenue Service and Justice Department and National Security as well as the countless intrusions of Obamacare and other big government schemes have left people feeling less free, and now Syria is the latest foreign fiasco to foster an isolationist mood, and Paul’s brand of pure libertarianism suddenly seems to have all the answers. The isolationism of the left has now been repudiated by Obama himself, and the left is still stuck with the effects of his economic policies and the scandals of his ever-growing government, making Paul or some like-minded outsider the best positioned candidates to run on a platform of staying at home in peace.
Which won’t make the world any less troublesome, or keep it out of our home, but so long as American power is wielded so ineptly has it has been lately the argument will be hard for the public to resist.
— Bud Norman