I won’t argue that President Obama has been better than a hypothetical President Rubio (or more likely President Clinton), but this is really not something that one can use to point out his Foreign Policy bona fides. He wasn’t precisely “rushing” into Syrian war, but he was absolutely rounding up the consensus for putting boots on the ground in Syria.
It is a rare thing, worth studying, that American public opinion was uniquely opposed to this intervention; In fairness to Obama, it was partially stoked by raw Republican contrariness (contrary even to their own plans), but it was also the first sign (for those that wanted to see it) that the Interventionist consensus was no longer being accepted without scrutiny.
Blame Republicans, if you want, for a completely incoherent obstructionist approach to Syria, but a feather in his cap Syria is not.
I agree that that “rare thing” is “worth studying.” The significance of that moment – crystallized in the reversal on “punishing” Assad – should not, in my view, be underestimated.
I wrote about it extensively at the time.1 What emblematically defines that moment is this: It was a fiasco for Obama, but decisively not for a significant faction within Obama’s coalition, or for the theory of the presidency that Obama’s election and re-election represented for them and arguably for the nation. Put differently: The moment was a fiasco for the “imperial presidency,” which is or was a central element of and requirement for the US role in the post-WW2 security system. Obama survived and somewhat recovered – perhaps because he adapted to the moment instead of fighting it – but a neo-isolationist or “realist” president will be a smaller figure than “Leader of the Free World.”
The moment may have effectively decided who Obama would be for world history, though we still cannot know whether he will be recalled as a figure of retrenchment – the legacy consensus stretched near a breaking point, but saved – or as a transitional figure. As to the latter possibility, but keeping in mind that developments of this type might require multiple presidential terms to consolidate, Trump and Trumpism generally represent the first of two main roles or tendencies for a post-imperial United States:
- “Jacksonian” nationalism within a chaotically dis-assembling international order – thus also Trump’s renegade pronouncements regarding post-WW2 international law and its precepts.
- Neo-isolationism seeking maximal removal from global conflict.
Related to the Republican campaigns: 1 = Donald Trump; 2 = Rand Paul. (Those yearning for movement in the direction of tendency #2 often wishfully mistake #1 for it.) Marco Rubio represents American Imperialism or Neo-Imperialism, (Neo-)Conservative Tendency – we could number it “0” or “3” depending upon how far we believes things have gone, so whether we see the objective to be closer to “continuity” or closer to “restoration.” Ted Cruz may represent an attempt at new synthesis from the right, and the difficulties of achieving it on the fly (or ever) may have something to do with uncharacteristic stumbles by the smooth-talking conviction politician – calling for “surgical carpet bombing,” being for after he was against surveillance state measures, and so on.
Some may deem these considerations irrelevant to the election, or at best secondary, according to the familiar claim that, absent an ongoing major war or escalated external threat, “foreign policy” moves few voters compared to “the economy.” The argument ignores the extent to which the latter is thoroughly embedded within the former, from immigration to taxes, inequality, and income stagnation. The intention to focus on standard of living or domestic affairs is itself a foreign policy principle, and its maintenance relies on the world’s cooperation or at least its relative stability. At the same time, any consistent, extended maintenance of any stance may not be a potential of American politics at all, now as ever, absent a system-external unifying impetus. (Warfare up to and including major interstate wars has been the historically typical or one might even say natural, arguably necessary, course of politico-military re-alignment and the deconstruction of empires.)
In other words the struggle playing out within the Republican presidential primaries is part of a larger struggle within American politics and globally. In the same connection, but on the Democratic side, to the extent Bernie Sanders registers, he might represent a neo-isolationist tendency by default or aspirationally, while one mode for near-term resolution or attempted deferral of the struggle in its most urgent forms – so, temporization – would be in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, on behalf of a still functional Democratic governing coalition united, or provisionally re-united, under liberal internationalism or: Neo-Imperialism, (Neo-)Liberal Tendency. Hillary Clinton’s task would be similar to her husband’s, but possibly much more complex, reflecting the differences between early ’90s triumphalism and 21st Century global disorientation.
Map: Detail from “The World Around the United States (1970)” – USG Publication