U.S. Foreign Policy Needs Some Old-Fashioned Subtlety


In the Republican and Democratic presidential debates, President Barack Obama’s ultimate rejection of using force against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, keeps being raised as an issue. In all cases, the debate moderators have been pushing the candidates to call out the president for being “weak.” In the Democratic debate, the candidates avoided this characterization, but of course the Republicans bring up the episode second only to the equally overstated and unimportant episode of the Obama administration’s response to the attack on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya--principally because current candidate Hillary had a bigger role in Benghazi simply because she had left her post as Secretary of State eight months before Obama made the decision not to use force against Assad.

But what of Obama’s of “weakness” and “appeasement” of Assad? Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany in the late 1800s and a master of international Machiavellian diplomacy, would have been appalled at these characterizations. So likely would have Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest military commanders of all time. Obama’s threat eventually led to Russia’s pressure on Assad, its ally, to get rid of his chemical weapons entirely. Happy ending, right? Not according to the Republican candidates. In 2016, the Republican candidates, and occasionally Hillary—to show how tough they are—would have the United States behave like a dim-witted body builder at the beach who goes around punching people for no reason. Apparently, according to Republican thinking on the Assad matter, the world thought Obama was a wimp for not following through on his threat to use force, no matter how good the outcome attained without it. Obviously, the Russians took Obama’s threat to use force seriously, because they pushed their ally Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons. So the choice was between punitive, purely symbolic, and likely ineffectual U.S. military “retaliation” and an even better outcome—an Assad stripped of his chemical weapons.

Bismarck probably would have thought the latter outcome to be very satisfactory. In fact, back in the old days when Bismarck was tromping around, “appeasing” enemies by paying them off instead of fighting them—as General David Petraeus adroitly did in Iraq, disguised as a macho American troop “surge”—was considered smart. Similarly, to get better press, maybe Obama should have made a deal with Russia to bomb a few empty buildings in the Syrian desert to make the whole thing look macho. Bismarck might have even gone further and advised that when a nation’s enemies are fighting—as U.S. adversaries are in Syria—it should stay out of a bloody war and conserve resources, while the adversaries expend theirs beating each other to a pulp. Then-President Ronald Reagan was largely able to carry out such a restrained strategy during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, was then able to handily defeat a weakened Iraq in the subsequent and brief Desert Storm campaign in 1991.

Napoleon also probably would have been perplexed at the criticism of Obama over the Syrian episode. Napoleon, certainly no wimp, thought that the ultimate achievement for any military commander was to get an adversary to capitulate without ever having to use force. In other words, why waste lives, ammunition, and other resources fighting when smart maneuvering could achieve the same result.

Americans, raised on action movies, seem to think the nation will be seen as weak internationally if it is not constantly bombing someone, leading presidential candidates, in a democracy, to give the public what it demands—macho hot air. Of course, this disease among the people leads the nation to an exhausting state of perpetual war for no good reason. Many other empires have gone into the graveyard of history because of such exhaustion—both financial and psychological—all the while believing that they were special and that it could never happen to them. Unfortunately, with a nearly $19 trillion national debt, promises to defend many nations all over the world, a costly far-flung worldwide military apparatus, and ubiquitous armed interventions in unimportant places such as Syria, the American Empire, without a major retraction and renewal, will likely travel down the same road to ruin.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

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