Certainty and Doubt

"Often wrong, but never in doubt" is a description of one kind of political mind. "Occasionally wrong, but often in doubt" is another. Applied to foreign policy, and especially the use of US military power, this formulation offers an insight into policy confusion over Syria.

The context: For a decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. was the uni-power. Then came 9/11 and a "global war on terrorism" (a tactic). The neo-cons then running the government saw the chance to use this war as an excuse to transition from a hunt for bin Laden to the use of Iraq as a base for American power in the always troubled Middle
East and they did so with an audacity that would make old-time British imperialists blush.

More than a decade later, no definable victory could be declared either in Afghanistan or Iraq. Thousands of American lives, and many more civilian lives, and tens of billions of dollars later the American taxpayers concluded that enough was enough. Formerly hawkish neo-con dreamers of a U.S. dominated Middle East (and possibly world) had either disappeared or re-emerged as isolationists -- at least where the use of military power by a Democratic president was concerned.

Interesting how who is wielding military power often dictates how one feels about using that power.

George W. Bush was never in doubt about invading Iraq, though his facts and arguments turned out to be very wrong, but Barack Obama has a lot of doubts about dropping cruise missiles on Syrian military targets. One attitude sees the world as black and white, good and bad. The other attitude sees the 21st century world as grey and plaid.

There is good and evil in the world. At our best we support good and oppose evil, though we are not always consistent as our support for dictators during the Cold War suggests. The question is how, when, and whether to use military force in this pursuit. "Regime change" for evil dictators as a policy standard failed when we neglected to include Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe in the effort. Perhaps he was exempt because he had no oil.

Seeing the world in blacks and whites and never having a doubt, as in the conservative world, is appealing, perhaps even enviable. It certainly has the advantage of simplicity, if not also perception and coherence. There is great comfort in certainty, even when wrong. Cut to the chase and head for the golf course.

On Syria, the few remaining Republican hawks join Democratic liberal interventionists and neo-isolationist Republicans are joined by Democratic peace-makers, the latter consortium representing majority American opinion. The false clarity of the Iraq invasion is missing. What's a president to do? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile Russia moves into creative leadership. That's not all bad. But why didn't our government propose custody of the Syrian chemical depots by neutral nations?

The recent Lebanese civil war lasted two decades. Let us pray the same will not be true in tragic Syria. For the long-run, however, let's try to establish some enduring foreign policy standards that combine certainty of principles with doubts about when to use force to achieve them.