Obama has gone too far, according to Roger Cohen. In two op-ed columns, the NY Times pundit has bemoaned what he sees as the president’s reluctance to use American power abroad. Excessively concerned with the possible dire consequences of US intervention, Obama is “talking down American power,” ceding the initiative to our adversaries around the globe. A generally sensible, moderate liberal, Cohen is no fire-breathing hawk. Up to a point, he appreciates Obama’s recognition of the limits on American power and his careful, analytic approach to foreign policy making. But he thinks that Obama is overcorrecting for past interventionist misadventures.
I disagree. But because Cohen’s views may well represent a perspective with significant support in our foreign policy establishment, it’s worth examining the substance of his arguments and their underlying assumptions.
Cohen’s two op-eds are thin on substance. Take Syria, for example, the most urgent issue Cohen discusses. He criticizes Obama’s inept handling of the chemical weapons issue in 1913 as illustrative of the President’s ambivalence and indecisiveness about the use of American power. But Cohen doesn’t mention the overwhelming opposition of the US Congress, reflecting public opinion polls, to the bombing campaign that he presumably would have liked to see. So, he doesn’t consider the consequences of an intervention undertaken in the face of massive domestic opposition in the US. Cohen is harshly critical of what he regards as the US’s inadequate stance with regard to the ongoing Syrian civil war. But he has nothing to propose as an alternative to current policy. Cohen is similarly critical of Obama’s actions or insufficient actions with regard to Afghanistan and Russia/Ukraine without saying what he himself would do. Cohen suggests that in Syria as elsewhere, the administration is excessively concerned with the possible unintended consequences of American intervention: “’Just do it’ might have served Obama better at times than “What next.’” In effect, Cohen is saying, “I don’t know what we can do about Syria (etc.), but just do something.” The something would presumably be something military.
The exhortation to “just do something” reflects the assumption common to our foreign policy opinion leaders that the US, as the world’s dominant superpower, has a responsibility to be involved everywhere in the world in the solution of problems like Syria, especially if other major powers (e.g., Russia) are involved. But what if there is no solution? What if there is simply nothing constructive for the US to do? What if Syria is just another Middle Eastern quagmire to avoid? That horrible, tragic conclusion may just be correct, but it’s evidently unthinkable to Cohen, who cannot acknowledge that the Syrian mess exemplifies the limits to American power. Regardless of the possibility of a solution, America must be involved—the exercise of American power is practically an end in itself.
Cohen thinks that the assertion of American global dominance is not only necessary, but mandated by American political culture. He speculates,
Suppose…Obama had been frank and said: “My job is to reduce the footprint of America in a changed world and empower other countries to do more.” That’s a total sinker in American politics.
It’s unthinkable because most Americans are still hard-wired to American exceptionalism, the notion that American is not America if it gives up on spreading liberty.”
Cohen is engaged in wishful thinking: he’s projecting his establishment values and assumptions onto the American people. In a Pew Research Center survey in late 2013, 52% of the public said the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” 38% disagreed. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll the next year produced similar results. Different polls and different question wordings yield somewhat different results, but it is safe to say that generally speaking, the American people have no great appetite for a more aggressive foreign policy. Obama’s restraint, to my mind, doesn’t go far enough, but that’s an argument for another post. Suffice it to say that Obama’s foreign policy is both more realistic and more viable politically than what Cohen seems to yearn for.
Is there truly no solution for Syria? Maybe not, but there is a reasonable try—I think probably the only try. Former Obama administration official Robert Gordon has laid out a blueprint for what he admits would be a “Herculean diplomatic effort” bringing together all the parties whose varied interventions have fueled the Syrian disaster, including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. It would mean the abandonment by all parties of their maximal objectives in order to focus on the broadly shared goal of bringing down the level of violence and avoiding a takeover by extremist jihadists. I don’t know if this can work, but what else is there?