June 20, 2013

Jacob Heilbrunn: "There really is no accountability when it comes to American foreign policy"

Obama in Berlin.

Below is an excerpt from Jacob Heilbrunn's article, "Obama and the Failure of the Syria Debate" (The National Interest, June 20):
Obama’s moves on Syria have not failed to stir a debate among intellectuals and the press. Professor David Bromwich, one of our leading intellectuals, has written a masterful dissection of the Obama administration’s road to war in the New York Review of Books. One of the proximate causes of the renaissance of the de facto alliance between liberal hawks and neocons has been the sorry fact that there really is no accountability when it comes to American foreign policy. Its possible to make catastrophic predictions and decisions, as in Iraq, and then go on to make fresh and equally sweeping predictions with impunity. But it isn’t simply liberal hawks who are endorsing military strikes in Syria. As Bromwich notes, Carl Levin, a staunch liberal and head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, endorses them in limited (whatever that means) form.

Still, Syria may end up bearing out Karl Marx’s aphorism about history beginning as tragedy—Iraq—and ending as farce, though the consequences for the Syrians themselves are far from farcical. In America Syria has become an arena for moral posturing by the likes of Senator John McCain, a chance to try and avenge the ghosts of Iraq. But for Obama, who is palpably reluctant to engage, sending in arms may be a mere sop to his critics. How much further he is prepared to go, even with the ascension of Samantha Power and Susan Rice, is an open question. He surely finds the idea of mission creep pretty creepy. Nevertheless, he has crept into the conflict. And he may find it increasingly difficult to detach himself from it as critics warn of a wider Middle East war lest America fail to back a winning side. The darker interpretation, one forwarded by Daniel Drezner, is that Obama is simply trying to protract the conflict. Fareed Zakaria observes, “If this interpretation of the Obama administration’s behavior is correct, then the White House might well be playing a clever game—but it is Machiavellian rather than humanitarian.” 

Even as the critics try to parse Obama’s motives, however, the absence of debate over intervention in Syria in Congress is striking.  Yes, Sen. Rand Paul, who is on the front-page of the Washington Post today, has blasted the idea of intervention as well as McCain’s trip to Syria. But his remains a distinctly lonely voice. As former Sen. James Webb recently wrote in the National Interest, Congress has largely become a doormat for the presidency when foreign affairs is the subject. As the White House becomes inexorably drawn into Syria, its abdication is a further sign of the corrosion of American democracy even as its champions urge exporting it abroad.