Josef Nothmann Journal Contributor
Ten days ago I attended an address given by Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff at Harvard University. In his speech, Ignatieff advocated for a humanitarian “imperative,” arguing for the concept of a responsibility to protect. Naturally this was (or became) an argument for American intervention in the current Syrian conflict. Ignatieff is certainly not alone in supporting direct and/or indirect American intervention in Syria. I have been more than a little surprised and taken aback by the increasingly blurred line between the views of humanitarian neoliberals like Ignatieff and those neoconservatives who have so haunted US foreign policy these past 15 years.
I agree with Vali Nasr, of Johns Hopkins SAIS, that Obama has a feckless and ignorant foreign policy, devoid of global strategic vision, but I am not sure if I disagree with US neutrality in the Syrian conflict as an end per se, however domestically oriented that non-involvement may be. Parenthetically, the United States is a democracy, and the foreign policy of democracies is accountable to and constrained by public opinion, however myopic and/or imbecilic that opinion may (or may not) be.
See “American involvement in World War Two, 09/1939-12/1941” for a clear example of this. There are many aspects of American policy, both foreign and domestic, which could conceivably be improved, were an autocratic government to consider problems and construct a strategic orientation free from the troublesome interference of electoral considerations, but the fact remains that we live in a democratic order, and I don’t perceive a groundswell of support for a change. Perhaps I am mistaken on that, but I think not.
The fact also remains that the US cannot simply be against Assad. There must be some coherent entity for which American policy can stand. That coherent (and politically/morally acceptable) entity does not exist. The human loss/misery is tragic (although a whizz in the wind in relation to the Congo, about which no one seems to care,) but the current situation in the Levant brings to mind the immortal words of Prince von Bismarck: at this geostrategic juncture, it is simply not worth the bones of one (more) of the American equivalent of a Pomeranian grenadier.
We are a nation of debtors whose dysfunctional political system cannot produce a workable budget. A generation of military equipment is at the end of its lifespan and without prospect of immediate replacement. Massive healthcare costs have been incurred in the course of two major wars. Schools, bridges, and roads are all in poor repair. The educational system is financially, morally, and intellectually bankrupt. Millions at home are trapped in ignorance and poverty.
The US cannot (and ideally will not) be the fireman of the Middle East, scorned and despised but ever on call, offering up its sons and daughters (not to mention its treasure) in sacrifice — for what? The United States has tried its hand at playing God, to its great detriment. I wish Syria and the Greater Middle East all the best in a glorious and prosperous future with minimal American participation — which is what its inhabitants have wanted all along, no?