Op-Ed: What Syria Tells Us About the U.S. Both Pre and Post 9/11 American Foreign Policy and the Use of Power: A Historical Perspective

Dr. Arthur Garrison

It has been 12 years since Al Qaeda attacked the United States and 3,000 people were killed. After the attack, the United States was ready for war and, with the exception of a few in dissent, the United States went to war against Afghanistan with little to no hesitation or restraint. It has been 10 years since President Bush said Iraq posed a military threat to the United States due to its possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. With greater opposition notwithstanding, the United States went to war and suffered two dramatic events: first, the combined military and national security apparatus of the United States could not find any of the large stockpiles of weapons that were supposed to be in Iraq and second, and perhaps worse, the United States found itself in a war that took a decade to get out of that was supposed to take only weeks to complete. The war in Afghanistan has not ended. President Obama was elected with the twin foreign policy of getting out of Iraq and increasing military operation in Afghanistan.

The politics of the last 13 years has been complicated to say the least, leaving aside the political hypocrisy regarding the proposed use of military force. Republicans, in complete uniformity, supported President Bush in his assertion that war was required to disarm Iraq. Democrats that opposed the war were accused of being soft on terror at best and close to disloyal and supporters of terrorism at worst. Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama opposed the Iraq war. Former Secretary of State Clinton supported the war.

Now the world has changed and President Obama has asked Congress for approval to attack Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people in a sectarian civil war. The Republicans found themselves asking questions that the disloyal Democrats were asking a decade ago. Accusations of disloyalty or intentional weakening of the President for political reasons are nowhere to be heard. Even more interesting is the political line-up of supporters and those who oppose military operations, which could only happen in our democracy. (The Iraq war has a long and interesting shadow). You have the Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz Tea Party republicans allied with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and progressive Democrats opposed to military action being opposed by the John McCain and Lindsey Graham republicans, allied with Senator Barbara Boxer and Former Senators Clinton and Kerry, in favor of military intervention. You have against intervention and military action Chris Hayes of MSNBC in agreement with Sean Hannity of Fox News!

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Those who said trust the intelligence a decade ago are now demanding levels of proof and detailed statements of foreign policy goals and post military action strategies that were considered un-American to ask for during the debate on Iraq. But politics in foreign policy is not new. President Adams released the XYZ affair letters to the public to humiliate and politically shut down the Jeffersonian Republicans in the debate on whether the United States should stay neutral in the war between France and Great Britain. The two chief defenders of the constitution (Hamilton and Madison) went to war in the press over Washington declaring that the United States would not honor a treaty that would have required the United States to join France in the war. After World War One, the isolationist wing of the Republican Party took control of foreign policy debates and policy until the day that would live in infamy. Roosevelt, in his second re-election, ran on the promise to keep out of the war, full well intending on getting the United States ready to enter the war.

The day that will live in infamy, as FDR described it, would change America for decades to come because it began the establishment of America as the greatest military and financial power in the second half of 20th century. But what is interesting is that before the war, the United States was at best a regional power and not a world military power. Between the Civil War and World War Two, the United States became a regional power dominating Latin and Central America (remember the Monroe Doctrine). From Washington through Lincoln, American foreign policy primarily consisted of maintaining international trade and remaining free of, as Washington warned, foreign entanglements. America was not, before World War Two, a great military power looking to dominate the world (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson not withstanding). That attitude came after the Second World War. Like 9/11, after Dec. 7, 1941 the United States took the position that it was the disengagement of the United States (failing to join and support the League of Nations and adoption of isolation as a standing policy) that brought on the Second World War. After the war it has been the proposition of the interventionist approach that the United States had a responsibility to not only engage the world but to lead and dominate it to protect itself from communism then and terrorism now. This theory is dominant in both parties, for as President Obama stated in his address to the American people, My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements -- it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.

Fewer than 70 years and multiple wars later - Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq a new president says that a civil war in Syria is now our problem because of the use of chemical weapons in that war. President Obama asked rhetorically, What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way? As President Obama explained, America is not the worlds policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. Thats what makes America different. Thats what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

It is a moral question, we are told. It is protecting international norms, we are told. Put simply, it is our problem because if the United States does not act, there will be no action, and no action is a threat all its own. The United States is the last world superpower, which is opposed by the former superpower Russia and asymmetric powers like Al Qaeda and rogue states like Iran and Syria, and the United States cant appear weak in the face of the new challenges of the 21st century.

In his address, President Obama concluded, Franklin Roosevelt once said, Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged. Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.

The fact that the United States has enemies is a given. The events in Syria and President Obama going to Congress to seek authorization to punish Syria for using chemical weapons in its own civil war raises a question: Does the United States strength to defend itself mean that it must dominate the world? Even assuming it does (and the U.S. did exercise such hegemony), during the heydays of the initial post World War Two era, does every problem or abomination in the world require the United States to act in todays world? Even Great Britain, who said the use of such weapons required an answer, said that it would not be the one to give the answer.

The United States is not an empire, it is a republic. Iraq proved that the United States is not a good occupier of other lands and countries. The two great empires of world history, Rome and Great Britain, both fell because they over extended themselves financially and politically, destroyed generations of their best in world wars and never relented on their assertion that all roads lead to Rome and the sun never sets on the British Empire. Well, it does now and the great roads of civilization go everywhere but Rome. This is even more sobering when you consider Rome and Great Britain knew how to be conquerors and occupiers of other nations. They knew how to run other nations in faraway lands.

The proposition that the United States was always a beacon on the hill ready to defend justice anywhere in the world is at best an idea almost a half century plus 20 years old. More precisely, it started in 1980 with the ascendency of President Reagan and his theory of containment and confrontation of the Soviet Union and the aggressive foreign policy of opposing and destabilizing communist governments in Latin and Central America. It was the fruition of the idea that the United States can and should shape world events.

What Iraq should inform us in thinking about Syria is that we cannot be the worlds police and defender of children and babies in their beds and not everything in the world can or should be shaped by the United States. The present events of Syria should be less about the specific strategy of the Obama Administration regarding Syria (not to mention whether on the ground in a hot sectarian civil war, chemical weapons can be successfully removed under U.S., Russian and U.N. authority?).

The present events should be more about what is and should be the nature of American foreign policy. The United States has limits; a great nation knows the limits of military power and knows what is and is not worth its blood and treasure. Stopping a president from using chemical weapons on his own people in his own country may in theory be worth the expenditure, but using the military to defend and prove the proposition that America is a world power that all other nations must fear is not.

President Obama is correct that America is an exceptional nation, but its exceptionalism is due to the values we hold, not the military weight it can throw around. Perhaps a review of American foreign policy and Presidential commander-in-chief powers can begin with the following admission: America stands for many great things, but not all of those things have been or will be accepted or be applicable outside of her boarders. It is not weakness or isolationist to admit this truth.

Dr. Arthur Garrison is a criminal justice professor at Kutztown University. This opinion editorial piece does not necessary reflect the views or opinions of Kutztown University.