Americans Are War-Weary, But Washington Is Not

There are no obvious humanitarian or foreign policy benefits to justify the risk of sparking a region-wide conflagration. Moreover, Obama risks a major domestic backlash. The president and his foreign policy advisers know all this. So why are they willing to take such enormous risks?
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Barack Obama's arguments for pushing the United States into the Syrian Civil war make little sense to most Americans.

It seems clear that poison gas was used in Syria on August 21. Not so clear is who used it, and whether Assad issued the order. This point is crucial. After all, the president is our commander-in-chief, but no one holds him responsible for civilian atrocities committed by American troops or errant drones that murder women and children. Nor was anyone in the U.S. government held accountable for the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam or for encouraging our then-ally Saddam Hussein to gas Iranian and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s.

But let's assume Bashar al-Assad was the conscious perpetrator. Given the widespread post-Iraq distrust of such "take-our-word-for-it" U.S. claims, the obvious sensible course would have been to present clear evidence to the world. Coupled with assurances that Russia could keep its warm waters base in Syria, an irrefutable case certainly could have galvanized a global coalition against Assad, brought him to justice and strengthened worldwide sanctions against the future use of chemical weapons.

In contrast, Obama's proposed "shot across the bow" is a punishment that falls miles short of being appropriate to the crime, and hardly likely to deter others.

Long before the chemical weapons incident, the president said that Assad "must go." So perhaps, despite the president's denial, this is a cover for destroying him and replacing his government with a U.S.-friendly regime. But that would clearly require the boots-on-the-ground invasion that the president has promised not to do. And if he does, it will leave the Syria to a deeply divided fractious opposition heavily laced with jihadists, Al Qaeda allies and criminals. By way of reference, today, after 10 years of such nation-building in Iraq, the successors to Saddam Hussein are openly facilitating Iran in supplying weapons to the Syrian army.

Thus, there are no obvious humanitarian or foreign policy benefits to justify the risk of sparking a region-wide conflagration that could bring in Iran, engulf our Israeli and Saudi allies and generate far more death and destruction. Moreover, Obama risks a major domestic backlash that, among other things, could dash his party's prospects in next year's election and his own fading hopes for his legacy.

The president and his foreign policy advisers know all this. So why are they willing to take such enormous risks for such little potential gain? To understand it, ask yourself another question: Why has the government of the United States -- under both Republicans and Democrats -- continued to fight foreign wars it cannot win?

Over the last 60 years we have made -- in addition to dozens of minor interventions and many more hostile covert actions overseas -at least six major military incursions into foreign countries. Korea ended in stalemate. Vietnam was a military defeat. We were chased out of Lebanon and Somalia. In Iraq, we blew away Saddam's army, but after almost 40,000 US casualties and over a million Iraqi civilian dead, the war left the country worse off and further destabilized the Middle East. And we are pulling out of Afghanistan, which will more than likely eventually be back in the hands of the Taliban and its friends.

Air bombing were successful as a humanitarian intervention. But that was done as part of NATO in a in place were the chances of either the war or Anti-Americanism spreading were minimal. From that perspective, the jury is still out on the NATO attacks on Libya.

Our unequivocal U.S.-only "victories" have come in a raid to kidnap the president of Panama and the attack on the island of Grenada, which one sailor said seemed like invading a golf course.

But whatever your measure of success or failure of these efforts, one thing is clear: none have made the average American any safer. During the Cold War the peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was maintained through nuclear balance. Today, the idea of anyone invading the United States is absurd.

There is of course a threat from terrorists -- in small cells and/or individuals. But this is dealt with by policing our borders, not by adding to the world's supply of America-haters with quixotic attacks on people in small Muslim countries. Ironically, as a number of military analysts have contended, these small wars of choice have eroded the capacity of our military to do what it is meant to do: defend the country against enemies large enough to threaten America's real vital interests.

There have been beneficiaries. The arms makers prospered, although an increasing share of our military equipment is outsourced abroad. And global corporations with American names are often given greater access to foreign markets and cheap labor because their investments come with the imprimatur of the super-power.

These "benefits" were far outweighed on any moral scale by the lost and ruined lives, and on the economic scales by the diversion of resources from domestic investments needed to stop the relentless decline in American incomes and opportunities.

The only rational explanation for this dismal record is that the primary purpose of these wars was not to "win" them. Nor was it to defend the American people. It was to demonstrate to the world that the American governing class is willing to use force anywhere, anytime and at its own discretion in order to maintain their power as representatives of the world's hegemon.

This is what Obama, Kerry, John McCain and their echo chamber of media pundits mean by maintaining "credibility." And why congressional leaders have so quickly fallen in line for a policy to which 60 percent of Americans are opposed.

They are not talking about the credibility of America to defend itself. It is the credibility of American leaders to, in effect, act irrationally -- i.e., to go to war when the costs and risks so clearly exceed the benefits to their own country and global stability.

By this credibility standard, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan Wars have been successes: they showed that American presidents were prepared to inflict damage on other countries whatever the cost to our own. This in turn has created a macho foreign policy culture, in which presidents are constantly criticized for not having the "guts" to send other people's children to war.

"My credibility is not on the line," says the president. "The international community's credibility is on the line. And America's and Congress's credibility is on the line." This is disingenuous; he is the person who drew the line. But it reflects the imperial assumption that the U.S. president decides what best for the country and the world.

Since the end of World War II, the American people have more or less supported of their leaders' role as the world's judge, jury and policemen, so long as the personal cost was modest -- no draft, no war taxes. But as incomes stagnate, opportunities disappear and their economic future looks increasingly dim, the people's tolerance for foreign adventures is reaching its limits.

Hardly a day goes by when one of our political leaders does not remind the American people that a changing world demands that they lower their expectations -- Medicare and other "entitlements" must be cut, schools closed and public parks privatized, and low wages accepted. Popular resistance to this latest misadventure in Syria may be a war-weary America's first shot across the bows of its arrogant and reckless leadership.

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