In my last post on Syria I suggested that a case for US intervention might be based on the idea that US inaction would impair US credibility, hampering this country’s ability to defend US interests in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. This, in one form or another, is a common theme of hawks advocating air strikes or more.
Iran is often cited as a particular object of U.S. credibility–the US needs to make Iran understand that we mean business in the Middle East. But veteran Middle Eastern expert Gary Sick has efficiently disposed of the idea that what we do or don’t do in Syria will have much impact on Iranian behavior.
If not then with Iran, with whom do we need to maintain credibility? It is striking to me that none of the many hawkish supporters of an aggressive US response in Syria, at least none that I have read, has seen fit to ask why it is that President Obama has found so little support in the international community for his proposed air strikes. Of course, the negative reaction from Russia and China was predictable, but why has most of the rest of the world reacted with such diffidence? It’s a very natural question, one you’d think the hawks would try to deal with, but they don’t.
The international response to the Obama initiative is an inconvenient fact for anyone who claims that the U.S. must “do something” in Syria in order to maintain its credibility. It raises the question: credibility with whom? and for what? Clearly, the alleged threat to American credibility isn’t arising because America risks disappointing important other countries if it doesn’t strike in Syria. Most of them don’t seem to be yearning for American action.
Why not? One possible explanation is that most other countries simply don’t see the red line against chemical weapons to be all that bright and sharp, perhaps for reasons similar to those that I gave in my earlier post. Another part of the explanation, I think, is that everyone understands that President Obama’s call for air strikes isn’t just about Syria. It reflects a particular view of the wider US role in the world, one that is very widespread in this country, but rather less popular abroad.
That view, simply put, is that the United States is the world’s dominant superpower and that that dominance is good and necessary, both for this country and for the rest of the world. This view can fairly be described as the prevailing consensus of the US foreign policy establishment, widely shared across both political parties. It was expressed many years ago by Brent Scowcraft, the first President Bush’s national security adviser,who described American leadership as “the indispensable ingredient in fashioning a stable world order.” President Obama expressed the same worldview in his Tuesday speech, when he declared that “…for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.”
Naturally, the globally dominant superpower has responsibilities, which include responding to humanitarian crises that capture the attention and engage the conscience of decent peoples. If U.S. global dominance is to maintain its legitimacy and credibility, this country cannot fail to meet the responsibilities that power thrusts upon it.
So, the advocacy of humanitarian intervention in a case like Syria isn’t motivated by pure altruism; it reflects the belief, perhaps not entirely conscious, in the rightness and necessity of American global dominance. It’s altruism with ulterior motives. But given the ulterior motives, the practical considerations in deciding whether intervention is appropriate and potentially effective are weighed somewhat differently than if altruism were the sole motivating force. The assertion of American power becomes something of an end in itself, apart from whatever noble objectives it might accomplish. America must do something; in light of that urgency, the question whether or not that “something” will actually improve the situation in Syria is less important than that something is done. Means and ends are inverted.
As I hinted earlier, the idea that the United States is the uniquely indispensable guarantor of international stability and decency has much less currency abroad than it does in our own country. In an article entitled “The Lonely Superpower,” the eminent late political scientist Samuel Huntington described how many foreign countries viewed the Untied States “…as a menace to their integrity, autonomy, prosperity and freedom of action. They view the Unite States as intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, hypocritical, and applying double standards,….” In the same article, he quoted a British diplomat who remarked, “One reads about the world’s desire for American leadership only in the United States….Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.”
If you had to guess, you might guess, very reasonably, that Huntington’s article had been written not long after the Bush/Cheney attack on Iraq, which generated waves of anti-Americanism around the world. That would be a reasonable guess, but it would be wrong: Huntington’s article appeared in 1999, after 7 years of the Clinton administration. Three years later, Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan administration official, wrote a book exhaustively detailing the worldwide resentment generated by American unilateralist arrogance. Its title, Rogue Nation, referred not to North Korea, or Iraq or Iran or Cuba, but to these United States.
So, I think the muted response to the United States’ call for action against Syria reflects the perception in other countries that this represents yet another presumption by the world’s superpower that it stands above international law. The United States really doesn’t need to establish its credibility as a willing user of force; it needs far more to demonstrate its credibility as a nation willing to work within the norms of international law and diplomacy–in other words, to subject itself to the constraints accepted by “ordinary” nations. Ironically, we needed help from Vladimir Putin, of all people, to move in that direction. But hey, you get help from wherever you can.