"War Fatigue and Fervor Coexist in Washington"
Op-Ed, Agence Global
March 8, 2013
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Middle East Initiative
Visiting Washington, D.C. is always a thrill, eliciting in me the same feelings I remember as a child when visiting a really great zoo. This is not a criticism of either Washington, D.C. or zoos, only a descriptive statement about the spectacular, yet also the often wild, nature of the anthropology of power. I am always astounded by the debate in this town -- regardless of the year, the incumbent party or the issues at hand -- about whether or not the United States should use its considerable power in a certain situation around the world. This legacy changes very slowly, and very little.
After George W. Bush and his madcap Vice President Dick Cheney went wild with the use of the American military to wage a “global war on terror,” President Barack Obama in his first term broadly drew back on using too much military power abroad. He has gradually withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead relies heavily on four main tactics: using unmanned aerial drones as assassination machines around the world, playing a supporting role in armed interventions led by others (like Libya and Mali), training local troops around the world to suppress terrorists or insurrectionary movements (Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Mali and many others), and applying sanctions and the threat of force to achieve the desired political goals (Iran, Syria, North Korea).
Today, several discussions take place simultaneously here about what the United States should do in Egypt, Syria and Iran, in particular, along with whether it should revive its chronically failed mediation role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of the refreshing new developments in Washington and across the United States is a more open discussion of whether the U.S. should do anything at all in situations where its national interests are not directly threatened. These discussions seem somewhat half-hearted, though, because the escapades in distant Asian lands have been disappointing, and the citizenry is much more concerned about domestic priorities, especially the economy.
Barack Obama’s America is fatigued from war, aware of the failures of its war-making legacy, and unable fiscally to sustain such adventures. Americans broadly are tired of sending their troops far away to countries they do not understand and cannot reconfigure to their liking, as was the expectation in the George W. Bush administration that attacked both Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, the United States has very little to show for its massive expenditures of money, lives, and political reputation. The compulsory flag-waving and “support the troops” emotionalism persists, and it is sincere, because backing the troops abroad is one of the few truly unifying national phenomena in the United States that is otherwise deeply fragmented along ethnic, racial, ideological and income lines.
Power in a zoo is controlled by segregating the animals in separate cages, and keeping apart those of the same species that might hurt each other or the humans who visit the zoo. Power in Washington, D.C. is much more imprecisely controlled and used. What makes Washington, D.C. so fascinating is the constant possibility of the massive use of force, usually with little consideration for the full consequences other than how political circles in the United States would react.
Men and a few women in this town make decisions based heavily on their inclinations or emotional reactions, or often on the strength of their juvenile desire to project American values across the world (like promoting democracy in Asian tribal lands; the high point of American idiocy must have been the moves by L. Paul Bremer in 2003-04 to develop a national election system in Iraq based on Iowa-like primaries). Historians one day will provide us with a thorough account of the full consequences of the two massive American military assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan, measured in terms of the costs to those societies as well as to the United States itself.
Because the costs have been so high, and the consequences to date so erratic, there seems to be more caution in the United States about getting involved in new military adventures, especially in the Middle East. This is a positive development in principle, but its negative underbelly is that this caution on foreign military adventurism seems primarily to be a short-term reaction to recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not appear to reflect a meaningful reassessment of the underlying principle that continues to drive American foreign policy: that the United States has the capability and the right to intervene anywhere in the world to promote peace, security, stability and American interests -- with all four of those goals being loosely defined by American politicians who usually pay no respect to the sovereignty of other nations or the sentiments of other people around the world.
So we are likely to see the United States remain cautious about getting involved in countries that are passing through difficult conditions, like Syria and Egypt, but in situations like Iran the threats and drumbeat of war persist, if with slightly more caution than in previous years.
For more information about this publication please contact the Middle East Initiative at (617) 495-5963.
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