Myth I. Conservatives opposed to bombing Syria are isolationists.
Hardly. It would be better to call conservative skepticism a new Jacksonianism that is not wedded to any Pavlovian support for intervention or particular political party.
Instead, Jacksonians wish to husband U.S. power and prestige. Only that way can we ensure that we have both when existential crises loom—and many are now on the horizon.
The more prudent course is to weigh each intervention in terms of whether it serves long-term U.S. strategic interests. And ask if it can it do more good than harm to those beneath the bombs and at a cost commensurate with the results. Does it enjoy at least 50% support from the Congress and people? Have the president and his team worked hard to explain the rationale, methodology, and desired objectives to both allies abroad and Americans at home?
All that might sound like a lot of ifs—suggesting thereby an impossible bar for success abroad. But those prerequisites are neither too cumbersome nor guarantees of anything certain. After all, sloppy thinking occasionally can still result in won wars, while professional preparation can sometimes fail—given that nothing is certain in war.
Instead, such considerations offer a better chance of success when the bombs start falling. And they reflect an administration that takes military force seriously.
The present one does not. It still cannot explain why a “shot across the bow” and an “unbelievably small” bombing campaign are not “pinpricks.” (Who wants to be the first or last pilot to die to prove that his mission was not just a pinprick, but instead achieved only unbelievably small damage?)
Why is Congress initially to be bypassed, then consulted, then to be bypassed if not on board, then to be postponed if believed not on board, and now to be forgotten? Is it really isolationist to doubt the wisdom and efficacy of bombing Assad when we were told it was to: a) help the rebels, b) destroy WMD, c) punish Assad for using WMD, d) warn others not to use WMD, e) remove him, f) weaken him, g) restore U.S. credibility, h) restore mostly Barack Obama’s lost credibility, i) thwart Russia, j) show Iran, k) welcome in Russia, l) ignore Iran, m) create stability after Assad’s departure, n) not get involved after Assad’s departure, o) sort out good rebels from bad ones, etc.?
Weakening America and making Syria worse is not a proof of bipartisan interventionist support for the necessary postwar global system.
Myth II. John Kerry is far worse than Hillary Clinton at secretary of State.
True, poor Kerry is played hourly by the Russians and Syrians. He seeks to lecture and pontificate, not persuade and inspire. He ends up doing neither well. The secretary freelances into embarrassment. At times Kerry warns of imminent bombing; at times he champions sober negotiation; at times both and again neither. He talks ponderously and long. Even the Russians cannot stand the pomposity and cry no mas.
Kerry tries to resonate Obama’s orders. But he cannot—both because presidential directives, to the extent that there are any, are incoherent and unserious, and because, like Obama, Kerry made his career damning just the sort of unilateral preemptory military action—without allies, the UN, public support, or an authorization from Congress—that he is now demagoguing for. Was Kerry for Assad before being against him? Is Assad about like Genghis Khan—or is he now Hitler?—or worse, or maybe far worse? Are Assad’s soldiers lopping limbs and burning villages as Americans supposedly did in Vietnam? Or are some of the rebels the real cannibals and executioners of prisoners?
Yet all that said, Kerry inherited and made worse this mess, but did not create it. It was Hillary Clinton, not Kerry or even Obama, who first issued empty red lines that she either had no intention of enforcing or should have known that Obama had no desire to honor.
It was Clinton who grandly announced to the world that Kerry and other senators were right in declaring Assad a “reformer” and a “moderate.” It was Hillary who oversaw, along with Samantha Power and Susan Rice, the debacle in Libya. It was Hillary who explained why Gaddafi —the clever monster in rehabilitation doing all that he could do to massage Western oil-hungry and petro-dollar-grabbing elites—had to go, but why the suddenly now satanic Assad should be left alone to reform.
It was Hillary who was the architect of “lead from behind,” which proved nothing. Hillary thundered callously “what difference does it make?” over the four dead in Benghazi. Her State Department both stonewalled the Benghazi inquiry and, before the attack, refused to consider requests for more security.
It was Hillary who chortled in crude fashion “we came, we saw, Gaddafi died,” and in cruder fashion lied to the families of the dead that a right-wing video, not Islamist militias attacking a poorly defended consulate engaged in secretive arms smuggling, had led to the deaths of their sons. And, yes, it was Hillary who jumped ship to avoid the consequences of her own disastrous tenure, while she hit the lecture circuit to cash in and prep for her 2016 presidential run.
Kerry is incompetently cleaning up the wreckage of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous tenure.
Myth III. America is now in decline after being humiliated in Syria.
Syria was a diplomatic disaster and emblematic of the larger Obama foreign policy catastrophe.
But America will survive it, and it will become a textbook example of what not to do, analogous to Kennedy’s disastrous Vienna summit with Khrushchev, or the sad decision to forfeit a won Vietnam to the communists in 1974-5, or Jimmy Carter’s annus terribilis of 1980. Yet Syria is not an historic date marking America’s descent into permanent decline.
America’s longer-term, post-Obama indicators are in our favor. We lead the world in innovation. Immigrants still seek the U.S. We will be more energy secure than at any time since the 1930s. Our deficits are sinking after sequestration, with fossil fuel expansion and cheaper energy.
Our top universities have never more dominated world-wide rankings. Obama’s neo-socialism is waning; even he postpones elements of an unpopular Obamacare.
Even a slashed military is still far stronger than the next dozen militaries combined. One American worker, amid economic doldrums, still produces almost three times the goods and services of three Chinese workers. And so on.
Russia has brilliantly outclassed Obama. Yet Obama is not America and Putin is not Russia. The latter’s country is shrinking, increasingly unhealthy, a kleptocracy dependent solely on gas and oil revenues in the midst of an oil and gas boom elsewhere. A weak Obama and strong Putin do not translate into a strong Russia and a weak America. Obamitis will pass; the Russian malady will not be alleviated by Putin’s KGB cunning.
We will survive Obama, if barely, but then also flourish—if only by the wisdom of reacting to and doing the opposite of what the Obama era has wrought.