“No foreign policy will stick unless the American people are behind it. And unless Congress understands it. And unless Congress understands it, the American people aren’t going to understand it.” Barack Obama seems to have been touched by this quote by W. Averall Harriman (1891-1986), one of the most seasoned actors in American diplomacy, for a long time. To the point where one of the current U.S. president’s former colleagues, Vali Nasr, accused him of making the preservation of his popularity the pole star of his foreign policy.
That’s probably too harsh a judgment. But Barack Obama himself never hid that he was making external objectives secondary to internal recovery, nation-building at home, especially his biggest strategic choices: withdrawing from Iraq and, soon, from Afghanistan; the secret but lethal tracking of al-Qaida leaders; reducing military spending; the “leading from behind” tactic during the Libya intervention; the focus toward Asia—all of which helped him to define a new way of leadership that conformed to the general mood of the country.
Over the past few years, the U.S. has seen a significant shift toward isolationism. Starting in 2011, close to two-thirds of Americans deemed that their country was overly committed overseas. In September 2013, 72 percent of them—compared to 15 percent—were against any intervention aimed at turning a dictatorship into a democracy. This is clearly the product of the disillusion they endured during the last decade: First, undoubtedly, bitterness toward the human cost with thousands dead, a widely unpopular policy resulting in the rise in anti-Americanism and financing—over $1 trillion—massive military commitments with disappointing results. Then, hardship caused by the 2008 financial crisis, leading a number of Americans to prioritize resource spending on domestic needs over foreign affairs.
Combining a Safe Position with an Indignant Denunciation
This is what Barack Obama has perfectly understood. “I was elected,” he even reminded his partners during the last G-20 summit, “to end wars, not start them.” From this, we can imagine his embarrassment when the question of Syria ended up forcing him to go against the grain of an opinion that he had, up until now, vowed not to change.
For a long time, he even forced himself to combine the prudent position his realistic instincts dictated—even when the Syrian opposition revealed itself to be divided and the weight of anti-jihadists was difficult to ignore—with an indignant denunciation of the massacres that the Damascus regime was perpetrating. But by invoking, in August 2012, the “enormous consequences” that the use of chemical weapons by the latter would lead to, he trapped himself in a way. When the American president had to recognize that his warning had been violated, he first tried to belittle the extent of it but, as he himself admitted, August 21 changed everything.
The amplitude of the massacre did in fact pose a challenge to his credibility, along with the credibility of the United States and the United Nations. Then, feeling conflicted at the thought of engaging himself on a known path, knowing that a military intervention was contrary to his conviction, he strove to reinforce it—first, by insisting on the “limited, calibrated” character of the response that he was planning, then, after the British Parliament’s rejection of any kind of intervention, by announcing that he would, himself, ask Congress for its authorization.
A Risky Strategy
The move wasn’t devoid of dexterity; it would allow him to share responsibility for an operation that he knew the country was strongly opposed to with elected officials, or to charge them with a refusal that would endanger the credibility of the U.S. Moreover, Congress’ ringleaders got behind the idea of an initiative that might show Iran that Washington is not a “paper tiger.”
But, really, it was a risky move: The president actually seems to have expected way too much of his ability to reverse a situation that had been desperate from the beginning. In fact, up until now, and despite the intense effort that he and his collaborators have put forth, the hill seems to have remained impossible to climb. First, the president has no conditions likely to rally the nation behind this type of intervention. America has not been attacked; it doesn’t feel directly threatened; it doesn’t understand why limited strikes would be helpful but worries about the gears that any involvement might shift; he can neither benefit from the approval of the international community nor from the support of a strong coalition.
In addition, a number of elected Republican officials supported by the ultraconservative movement that is the tea party hate him too much to give him their support lest they risk losing their party’s next primaries. Finally, and most especially, striking Syria evokes very strong dissent in the U.S. Though a majority of Americans—75 percent—believe that Assad did in fact use chemical weapons, and while 60 percent deem that their country should do something to show that this cannot be allowed, 75 percent simply think that striking against Syria will further worsen the situation in the Middle East.
Independent Voters Averse to Striking at 66 Percent
How, then, can we be surprised if—after just over a year of scrutiny aimed at renewing the largest part of Congress—most elected officials balk at voting for a policy that a large majority, 63 percent vs. 23 percent, of the country is rejecting? This, even as “independent” voters—that both parties won’t stop fighting over—who are averse to military action are at 66 percent and presidential approval, with 49 percent disapproving compared to 44 percent approving, is currently in the red.
In this environment, we can understand Washington’s interest in Vladimir Putin’s proposition that Obama has said the two have discussed. It undoubtedly will only reaffirm the skeptics who reject any military intervention that benefits a political solution, who already represent a majority that was probably impossible to convince otherwise. Conversely, it would offer the president an elegant—though perhaps uncertain—exit strategy, by allowing him to confirm that his threatening to use military force was all that was needed to get what he was looking for.
In any case, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, at least as of right now, the country seems to favor this route: Even if a majority of Americans doesn’t trust Russia and doesn’t believe that Assad will give up his chemical weapons, 67 percent—compared to 23 percent—approve their president’s choice and 49 percent deem that he has proven, in this case, his leadership and adaptability. I’d bet that today Antonin Artaud would write: “I never thought of the Americans as a people so little into war.”
Pierre Melandri, Emeritus Professor at Sciences-Po>