Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has generally been distinguished by three major schools of thought. The debate over U.S. policy in Syria has brought the divisions between these camps into stark relief. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neoconservatives, many of whom supported the Bush Doctrine and the invasion of Iraq, are agitating for a more robust U.S. intervention, including the use of U.S. military force. With the use of chemical weapons coming as just the latest charge on a long list of humanitarian atrocities by the Assad regime, liberal internationalists seem ready to abandon their preference for multilateralism and United Nations sanctions to intervene to stop the killing as well. Finally, so-called realists seek to avoid a costly and potentially dangerous engagement in a complicated civil conflict, preferring to continue to work with regional allies and other major powers to exhaust diplomatic alternatives. Thus far the realist approach seems to be prevailing, but pressure is growing for the United States to act. If it does, U.S. national interests must shape the nature and scope of any intervention.
Neoconservatives, who would probably more accurately be described as primacists, view the persistence of unrivaled U.S. leadership (or primacy) as the ultimate end of our foreign policy. Because of our unique history, American power is almost by definition used in the service of good international outcomes. Support for democracies and universal values, opposition to autocratic regimes, and a willingness to engage in unilateral action (including the use of military force) are all components of this approach. The 2003 Iraq War illustrated how the United States, with its overwhelming capabilities could actually revise or re-shape the international system by removing a threatening regime and replacing it with a friendly one. Following this logic, the United States should take a more active role in the Syria because of the Assad regime's alliance with Iran and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The ongoing conflict is an opportunity to remove a longstanding threat to U.S. values and interests in the region.
At the other end of the spectrum are liberal internationalists, who generally agree that U.S. values, including the promotion of human rights and international order, should shape U.S. interests and policy choices. However, this approach views multilateralism -- working with and through the international community -- as the desirable and preferred path. Here, American power can and should be placed in the service of an expanding liberal international system, which in turn supports and upholds U.S. interests and values (perhaps even if American power should wane over time). With regard to Syria, if more cynical countries like Russia or China use their veto power in the UN to thwart collective action, then the United States should work with friendly states to do what is necessary to stop egregious transgressions of shared norms and rules of the international community. The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime should be viewed as crossing a "red-line" and therefore demands a robust U.S. response to end the humanitarian crisis and halt the predations of a regime that has forfeited its legitimacy.
In the middle is the realist camp. At their core, realists assume that sovereign states base their foreign policies on national interests. Power matters because it is the currency of international politics. Those who possess it have greater opportunity to achieve their desired outcomes. But power must be conserved and its usage prioritized. Shrewd diplomacy, backed by power, is an essential tool for achieving one's objectives. This approach also acknowledges that other states have interests which may diverge from our own, and thus bargains must be crafted to achieve mutually acceptable outcomes. Advantages of power can improve one's bargaining position, but it cannot guarantee perfect endings. There are limits to what power can achieve, as well as costs and potential downsides to wielding it. This view of world politics has never been comfortable to many Americans, with its emphasis on interests and power (also known as real politick) but it has generally reflected the broad middle of U.S. foreign policy thinking. When considering the use of military force, realists would reserve intervention only for situations where vital national interests were at stake. The use of force should be the last resort, and there is much more that can be accomplished through diplomacy.
Syria has highlighted the dividing lines within mainstream thought on U.S. foreign policy. While the Obama administration has thus far followed a cautious approach, working with regional allies, engaging other great powers like Russia, and avoiding a potentially difficult and dangerous intervention, pressure is mounting. President Obama would do well to disregard the calls for direct military action from the left and right and continue to focus on the development and implementation of policy that will resolve the Syrian conflict and protect and perpetuate U.S. national interests in the region over the long-term.