Can the Obama administration avoid a rising tide of war?

Can the Obama administration avoid a rising tide of war?

Are the tides of war rising or receding? That is the foreign policy question that occupied my attention this past holiday weekend, and in good academic fashion I can make a case for either answer.

On the one hand, President Obama has been claiming for years that the wars are receding, and this holiday snippet seems to bear him out: Ft. Bragg, the North Carolina home to some of the most deployed units in the U.S. Army, had the most troops home for Thanksgiving in years. The completed withdrawal from Iraq and the accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan means that, in sheer deployment numbers, the fewest number of Americans troops are in combat since the start of the Iraq war nearly a decade ago. Moreover, there were no surprise holiday visits by the president to troops in the combat zone, and the whole "wartime holiday" theme seemed more subdued — or perhaps just so routine as to be unremarkable. Still too many servicemen and women are dying, but suicide seems the growing threat, not IED’s and enemy action.

On the other hand, I spent as much time talking about war with friends and family as ever, the only difference was U.S. troops were not centermost (not yet, anyway). The raging civil wars in Congo and Syria and the intensified conflict between Israel and Hamas provided plenty of fodder for table debate. There were grim reminders from Afghanistan that the remaining Americans are very much in a combat zone.

And, most fundamentally, the political conflicts that fueled America’s decade of war are as far from resolution as ever. Two deep causes have produced a decade of deployments: first, the civil-war within Islam over how to reconcile the ambitions of political Islam with the constraints and opportunities imposed by globalization and modernity/post-modernity; and second, the imbalance of geopolitical power summed up in the idea of the United States as an indispensable power (if the United States does not act to preserve order, others will not step up into the vacuum). Both dynamics were very much in evidence over the holiday weekend, and neither shows much sign of changing in the coming year.

As a consequence, even a casual survey of the foreign policy horizon finds ample areas where U.S. interests are at greater risk today than they were, say, last Thanksgiving: Who will argue that Iraq is on a better trajectory today than last year — or Afghanistan — or Syria — or Libya — or Israel/Palestine — or Iran — or Congo — or the Far East?

All of this adds up to a conviction I have had for some time now: Obama’s second term will be profoundly shaped by a rising tide of war. That does not mean more U.S. troops will spend next Thanksgiving in combat than this year. We can run away from a rising tide, at least for a while, and the president seems little able (and perhaps less inclined) to overcome the general sense of war-weariness that characterized his first term. But this will be war-avoidance by choice rather than by condition, by which I mean we will be choosing to live with conditions — be it a regional sectarian war in the Middle East, or a red-line crossing Iranian nuclear program, or conflict-driven humanitarian catastrophes — that only a few years ago we deemed worse than a U.S. military intervention.