Every president since Teddy Roosevelt has fought for an expanded legislative role for their office. But in foreign policy, they do not need to play second fiddle; Barack Obama has seized that right. Under his leadership, we’ve seen engagement with Libya, Iran and Syria; the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a pivot to Asia. This is not to mention his Nobel Peace Prize.
But what’s less clear is how presidents should navigate foreign policy. Unlike with their domestic agenda, presidents need not rely on a dismally uninformed populace for guidance. Now they are torn between America’s tradition of isolationism and the demands of an increasingly connected world.
“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” Washington promulgated in his Farewell Address, starting our isolationist tradition. Five years later, Jefferson confirmed that: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
This theme continued through much of our early history. Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to enter World War I. Roosevelt too claimed he needed a polarizing event to move the country to war (which came on December 7th, 1941).
However, the end of WWII saw a change in the global dynamic. The American giant, awoken by war, vied for hegemony, necessitating active involvement in world affairs. From funding the United Nations to supporting client states, this manifested itself clearly and often.
Yet, these manifestations were largely overextensions of our power. In Korea, initial successes turned into repeated defeats as we shifted to offense. In Vietnam, our gradual build up was to no avail; unified Vietnam became communist in 1976.
The end of the Cold War brought this trend to an abrupt stop. Bush I ensured that about-face in the lead up to the Gulf War by following the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine. That conflict was the anti-Vietnam: short, victorious and limited.
Noting that success, Clinton continued to use the Doctrine. As Samantha Power details in “A Problem from Hell,” Clinton had to be dragged into involvement in Somalia and resisted action in Rwanda.
But when his administration did finally act to stop genocide, it was limited and tactful. In Kosovo, NATO airstrikes last 78 days and forced the end of the war.
Bush II totally ignored the lessons of his father. Within 26 months of taking office, President Bush had committed us to three interventionist wars: first, an initially limited War in Afghanistan, an invasion of Iraq — both part of a worldwide War on Terror.
Because these protracted wars carried the stigma of Vietnam, Obama campaigned on ending these wars, like Eisenhower and Nixon before him. Through the “Obama Doctrine,” he’s rolled back the aggressive and traditional interventionism of his predecessor by focusing on diplomacy and limited military engagements. This shift to a new form of “isolated” interventionism relied drones and Special Forces, along the lines of the bin Laden, al-Liby and Ikrima raids.
But what does this history tell us about intervention in Syria?
A key lesson is that both sides must be forced into a position where a negotiated settlement will be self-enforcing. More simply put: the balance of power must last beyond the war. But when the US is a key participant in the fighting, we invariably leave after it ends, disrupting the delicate balance. Thus, acting not only on behalf of, but instead of our allies — as we did in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq II — reaching that settlement becomes impossible.
Small acts of ancillary support — isolated interventions — are a much stronger model. This has the added benefit of continuing our support for self-determination. In the end, the Kosovar people had to decide for themselves who is to govern. Libyans continue that discussion still.
No one can say Syrians haven’t fought this war on their own. President Obama abandoned a plan of isolated interventionism by focusing only on removing chemical weapons. While this was a step towards a equalizing the balance of power, it was not enough. Removing these weapons does not do enough to create the conditions for a settlement.
First, we should focus on arming and training the Free Syrian Army, which is poorly equipped with AK-47s and RPG-7s.
Second, we should impose a no-fly zone. With no air support, the opposition forces have had to abandon vehicles and must hide in cities. Restricting al-Assad’s air power will empower a more effective opposition to move away from civilian dominated areas, lowering collateral damage.
It is time for an isolated intervention.
Contact Nick Ahamed at firstname.lastname@example.org