Obama's Syria Shift Sends Foreign Policy Elites Back to School

The American public, far from being "isolationist," still generally accepts the vision that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to defeat the "isolationists," the same vision he later offered for world peace: the U.S. enforcing global order without risking American blood. Now Barack Obama has stepped back from the brink of "boots on the ground" in Syria and returned to FDR's idealized approach to policing the world.

Obama also took another page from FDR's book: Compromise, be flexible, and cooperate with the Russians when that's the best way to avoid risking American lives. In this case, Obama is cooperating with the Russians to deactivate the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile. As we now know, the president began exploring that idea with Vladimir Putin back in June. They both liked the idea enough that their technical people have already spent months figuring out how to do it. And the American people like the idea enough that an astounding 82% favor the U.S. - Russian plan.

The foreign policy elite, still living in the world created by Harry Truman's cold warriors, are horrified by the very idea of Obama trading toughness for conciliation. In their world, flexibility is weakness, and only the strong survive.

Which just shows what a gap there is between the elite and the people, and why Obama seems to be surviving the Syrian crisis, politically, quite well thank you.

As Washington Post political analyst Greg Sargent found when he looked at the polling data, the "Beltway establishment criticism, which has focused largely on process and theatrics, is deeply misguided and disconnected from how Americans view the situation. ... There is just no evidence Americans see this through the prism favored by establishment pundits -- that adapting to shifting circumstances is not 'resolute' or 'decisive,' and is therefore inherently a bad thing that has 'weakened' the presidency and the country."

In a WaPo poll, 60 percent said Obama "sticks with his principles," roughly unchanged since January 2012. 46 percent said his handling of the Syria issue "has not made much difference to U.S. leadership," while only 32 percent say it weakened the country. "What we really need," Sargent concluded, "is a reevaluation of all the unstated assumptions that shape establishment discourse about these matters."

How true, how true. And how surprising to see it said by an in-house analyst for the nation's most ultra-establishment news organization.

Fortunately some of those establishment assumptions are no longer unstated. The debate about whether to attack Syria brought them out of the woodwork and into the pundits' columns, as they urged the president to get tough. So we can start the reevaluation by looking back on the punditry of recent weeks.

Let's consider a couple of examples.

"Principle backed by credible force made the United States the anchor of global security since 1945," New York Times columnist Roger Cohen asserted. Credibility depends on sending a clear message and then acting upon it. But there has been no "message discipline on Syria from the careening Obama administration," Cohen lamented. Obama's "wavering has looked like acquiescence to a global power shift. ... America signaled an inward turn that leaves the world anchorless." It's all about signals and messaging (or, as Sargent put it, theatrics).

If an American president does not consistently send a consistent message of strength and resolve, we'll end up with "an anchorless world," a "post-American world -- and that means chaos." Why? Cohen quoted W.H. Auden: "'The ogre does what ogres can.'" Once you give ogres the message that they can run wild, chaos reigns.

Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (a famous training ground for the foreign policy elite), was equally worried about ogres. In an op-ed, he wrote: "The Obama administration has no choice but to enforce the 'red line' the president laid out a year ago. To maintain American credibility -- and his own -- President Obama has to do so quickly and decisively."

Why? For Nasr, too, it's about the theatrics of signals and messages, because they shape impressions and perceptions." Enforcing the red line "would impress American allies and adversaries alike." By "dithering," the president is "reinforcing the perception that the United States is no longer keen on leading the world."

That perception "will embolden America's adversaries and deject its friends. America could soon find itself alone in standing up to Iran or North Korea, or in pushing back against China and Russia. ... Shirking from our global responsibilities will only create bigger problems that will eventually raise both the cost and the likelihood of American intervention." Thus saith the establishment.

Now let's look at a few of the unstated assumptions, the premises you have to accept if these words by eminent foreign policy analysts are going to make any sense:

The geopolitical world that matters is divided into two and only two parts: America's adversaries and friends, the bad (ogre) guys and the good guys. The bad guys are always pushing against the good guys, trying to do as much evil as they can. If they aren't kept in check, the world situation keeps shifting and changing. Life gets unpredictable; it's not fully under anyone's control. And whenever no one is in control, the only alternative is chaos. Who can feel secure facing a growing tide of chaos?

The U.S. has a unique responsibility to keep the world securely under control because the U.S. is the only nation with enough power to do it. So America has to prevent the bad guys from pushing too hard and fomenting too much change. Fortunately that usually doesn't require military force. It merely requires a message that is as firm and unchanging as we want the world to be: If you keep pushing, you'll pay such a high price that the pushing simply won't be worth it.

But if America's spokesman, the president, doesn't stand firm -- if he's constantly moving and shifting -- the bad guys have no reason to believe that the world is under strict control. They won't expect to pay any great price for making the world move and shake even more. So they'll keep on pushing.

Eventually the U.S. will have to stop them, to prevent global chaos. But when "eventually" comes around, the only way to stop them may be with violence. And that would be a shame, since it could have been done with a firm, unwavering message --backed up by the mere threat of force.

It's a simple story that any average grade-school child could understand. In its childlike simplicity it has all the charm and appeal of a good myth. Indeed, it's part and parcel of America's prevailing myth, the myth of homeland insecurity.

But it's taught as perfectly logical fact and common sense in the nation's most elite grad schools, institutes, and think tanks, where the foreign policy establishment is trained -- and where reevaluation of unstated assumptions is strictly taboo.

So the establishment can't see the fundamental contradiction in its favorite narrative.

On the one hand, the story assumes that the bad guys are reasonable. They'll understand a clear, consistent message from Washington, do a perfectly rational cost-benefit analysis, and figure out that the cost of whatever action the U.S. has proscribed (for example, using chemical weapons) isn't worth the benefit.

On the other hand, it assumes that the bad guys are ogres. And ogres, as every child knows, do evil simply for the sake of doing evil, whether it makes any sense or not. In psychological terms, their reasoning faculties are overwhelmed by their impulses. Or, to put it theologically, their will is determined not by reason but by original sin.

Why put it theologically? Because the establishment narrative was christened back in the 1930s by the highly influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. George Kennan, who did so much to turn this story into policy in the early cold war years, called Niebuhr "the father of us all."

What Niebuhr taught "us all" (to put it a bit too simply) is that people are sinners because they want to assert and aggrandize themselves without limit. When sin takes over, reason and common sense go out the door. So does good order. Order depends on limits; evildoers, driven by sin, know no limits.

Logic creates orderly structures out of the chaos of the world, Niebuhr taught. But when sin lets impulse loose it destroys all orderly structures and limits in its rush to gratify its whims and wishes. As Yeats said, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Then we get Roger Cohen's "anchorless world."

But here's the rub: Since the ogre-ish bad guys are driven by sin, they'll always let impulse trump reason. Why, then, should we think that they will or can do any cost-benefit analysis, no matter how unwavering the message from Washington? Why should we think that any message or signal has the power to hold back the chaos?

That's just one of the lapses in logic we'll have to confront if we follow Greg Sargent's advice, as we should, and start reevaluating all the unstated assumptions that shape the establishment narrative.

There is still plenty to criticize in Barack Obama's foreign policy. But if his recent shift on Syria helps to send the foreign policy elite and their pundits back to school, this time to learn with some really rigorous logic and common sense, it will be one big point in the president's favor.

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