Absent Without Leave

America's politicians are abandoning their responsibilities in the Middle East. What follows could be very dangerous.

ALEX WONG/Getty Images
ALEX WONG/Getty Images

In the late 1960s, Britain signaled the end of its long run as a world power by withdrawing from major military bases east of the Suez Canal. Today, as the White House confronts the crisis in Syria, could America be facing its own "east of Suez" moment?

The historical parallels aren’t exact. Britain was an empire; the United States isn’t — despite the tendentious polemics of inveterate anti-Americans, from Noam Chomsky to Glenn Greenwald. Britain had already been surpassed by bigger superpowers by the 1960s. That hasn’t happened to America and isn’t likely to happen in the foreseeable future. But the debate over intervention in Syria has illuminated large and growing cracks in the internationalist consensus that has underpinned U.S. global leadership since World War II.

That consensus has been strained to a breaking point by feral partisanship and by a Republican Party increasingly in thrall to libertarian ideas. As a skeptical Congress awaits a possible vote on President Barack Obama’s proposal to use military force against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the big question is whether the United States can still muster the internal cohesion to play a decisive role in world affairs.

In his prime-time address Sept. 10, Obama asked Congress to postpone the vote pending a possible deal with Russia that would transfer Syria’s chemical arsenal to international custody. The scheme could spare Obama the embarrassment of being rebuffed by Congress, where sentiment against a U.S. strike has been hardening. But the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s enabler and the U.S. president’s tormentor in chief, is the one throwing Obama a political lifeline should give us pause about the deal’s merits. To be sure, the deal would be good for Obama, allowing him to boast that his threat to use force compelled Assad to give up his chemical weapons. It might also earn Putin a Nobel Peace Prize. But it won’t end the agony of the Syrian people, because it would leave Assad free to go right on killing them with conventional weapons.

If Washington forswears the use of force against Syria, as Putin is demanding, it will have paid a very high price for reinforcing the norm against chemical warfare. The Russian gambit, moreover, may founder on its sheer impracticality: Will Assad, his back to the wall, really give up his most fearsome weapon? And how will U.N. weapons inspectors be able to find and remove all the regime’s chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone? Even from a purely logistical standpoint, the Russian proposal may be close to impossible.

As that drama plays out at the United Nations, the battle for the Republican Party’s foreign-policy soul continues at home. Since the folly of isolationism was exposed in the 1940s, Republicans have rarely been reticent about projecting American power. On the contrary, they have advertised themselves as the party of military strength and unapologetic nationalism, especially after the Vietnam War provoked a schism within the Democratic Party over U.S. military intervention.

But that was then, when the Soviet bear lurked in the woods. Today’s Tea Party Republicans are more concerned about the threat from Big Government. They’ve allowed the budget sequester to gouge big holes in U.S. defense spending — cuts that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns "are weakening the United States’ ability to respond effectively to a major crisis in the world beyond the war zone in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, the view that the United States should quit wasting money and lives trying to provide collective security, uphold liberal values, or sustain a parasitical international system has migrated from the libertarian fringe to the Republican mainstream.

While the anti-war left mostly avoids the barricades, it’s arch-libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) who are leading the charge against Obama’s proposed strike on Syria. "War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened," Paul wrote recently in Time. Ethnic cleansing? Genocide? Sarin gas attacks on civilians? Sorry, that’s not our problem.

The libertarians’ resolute anti-interventionism is of a piece with their demands for radical spending cuts and tax cuts. Both are predicated on the view that Washington needs to be cut down to size in order to prevent it from interfering with private markets, snooping on citizens, and intervening in foreign conflicts that don’t concern the United States.

Although often couched in the language of realpolitik, this stance is really a kind of neo-isolationism. It posits that America can no longer afford to maintain military forces with global reach, that the very existence of such capabilities only tempts it to meddle fecklessly in other peoples’ quarrels, and that the blowback from such global hyperactivism creates new enemies and feeds anti-American sentiment. That this critique sounds like it could belong to the anti-war left doesn’t seem to bother the peaceniks of the right. Said Ron Paul, the grand old man of resurgent libertarianism: "I think there’s a historic event going on here, and if this vote is won — that is, defeat [of] the request to have more military approach to Syria — I think it will be historic because it’ll be a grand coalition of the libertarian Republicans and the Democratic progressives."

This improbable outbreak of Republican dovishness can be partly explained by reflexive partisanship: If Obama is for military intervention, it must be a bad idea. After previously flailing Obama for "dithering" while Assad massacred civilians, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — no doubt with an eye to the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination — opposed Obama’s plan to use force in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote. The usually hawkish Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, objects to a limited strike on Assad’s forces so long as it’s framed as a moral gesture, rather than a U.S. strategic necessity.

In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that vital U.S. interests are on the line in Syria. What began as peaceful Arab Spring protests has morphed into a proxy war that cleaves the region along sectarian lines and has made Syria a magnet for jihadists. A flood of refugees threatens to destabilize neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. And if Assad prevails — with the active backing of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia — it will be a huge setback for America’s core security interests in the Middle East: banking the fires of Sunni extremism, shutting down Iran’s nuclear program, and ensuring Israel’s security. America’s influence will shrink, Russia’s will grow, and America’s friends in the region will seek accommodation with the ascendant Iran-led axis.

Yet Obama has made no such case. He’s counting instead on fear of — and moral revulsion against — weapons of mass destruction to sway the minds of lawmakers — ironically, the same tactic George W. Bush used to get the United States into Iraq (though Obama, at least, appears to have better intelligence). By forswearing the goal of regime change and stressing a limited strike — "unbelievably small," in Secretary of State John Kerry’s now infamous slip of the tongue — designed to punish and deter Assad, Obama has won support from some prominent liberals, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Howard Dean.

But many other liberals aren’t buying the case for war, and the fact that Obama has radiated ambivalence over Syria for the past two years hasn’t helped his cause. In insisting on a punitive strike, he’s making America look like some kind of Victorian headmaster, paddling miscreant schoolboys to teach them a lesson. But Assad is no schoolboy. He’s a ruthless tyrant who is daily committing atrocities against unarmed civilians in Syria — with and without sarin gas. Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad is Syria’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

By all means, let’s test his willingness to yield his chemical weapons. But Washington should also make a serious commitment to providing non-extremist Syrian rebels the weapons, training, intelligence, and other support they need to either topple Assad or force him to the table for a negotiated settlement. That wouldn’t require U.S. boots on the ground, congressional authorization, or a green light from the U.N. Security Council. But it would advance U.S. security interests in the region while also reinforcing international laws against waging war on civilians, by whatever means.

Unfortunately, the baleful legacy of the "Iraq syndrome" hangs over this administration, whose spokesmen run like scalded dogs from any suggestion that "regime change" should be the U.S. goal in Syria. This means that, if the Russian deal falls through, Congress will face an unpalatable choice between authorizing a militarily meaningless strike and undermining the commander in chief. "The refusal to authorize force would be taken as an ideological pivot point," argues former Bush White House aide Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. "Nations such as China, Russia and Iran would see this as the triumph of a political coalition between the peace party of the left and the rising isolationists of the right. And they would be correct."

If this coalition gets its way, the resulting retraction of American power will leave the international system rudderless. When Britain pulled back from the East, it could count on the United States to fill the vacuum. But if America disengages, from the Middle East or elsewhere, there’s no powerful democracy waiting to take its place.

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