In “Ending the Mindset Is Hard,” the self-styled progressive foreign policy analyst/journalist Matt Duss credits the President with delivering on a promise first made as nominee: to challenge the “mindset that got us into war [in Iraq].” Yet Duss’s treatment reveals a problematic ambiguity or imprecision in his own preferred alternative to that mindset, or to what he defines as “Washington’s entire way of thinking about American Power”:
That Obama, who has engaged the U.S. militarily in multiple countries… might be considered “anti-interventionist” shows only how wildly tilted the debate has become. Obama is “anti-interventionist” in the same sense that the recent Iranian elections were won by “moderates”—true only in the sense of the limited options available.
For Duss “intervention” is simply another word for “military engagement.” Whether the intervention consists of, say, interdicting a terrorist plot or simply killing terrorists, or aiding a friendly regime against foreign or domestic enemies, or undermining an unfriendly one, or protecting civilians, and so on, would seem to make no difference. Both the general difficulty of adopting and following a truly entirely alternative way of thinking, as well as this peculiar and common imprecision regarding the meaning of “intervention” mark the hesitations regarding “the Obama Doctrine” that Duss, to his great credit, goes on to confess.
Sounding somewhat like former Obama State Department Official Tamara Cofman Wittes, Duss harshly criticizes the President’s “political disengagement from Iraq.” Duss denies the familiar charge of wasting hard-won gains from the 2007 Iraq troop surge – he peremptorily dismisses the notion as “nonsense” – but he does accuse the President of “confounding and tragic” errors:
[B]y taking a hands-off approach, it seems that he did squander the opportunity to use some hard-won knowledge of Iraq to try and ameliorate some of the political divisions that the surge strategy entrenched. The political pullout from Iraq, rather than the military one, in my view, demonstrated the validity of the charge that Obama was over-correcting from the Bush years.
Duss does not pause to consider whether a merely correct correction could also have represented a full repudiation of the bad mindset and its replacement by the good one – among other things by fully divorcing the political from the military practically as well as conceptually – but, when he turns immediately to Obama Syria policy, the opposite to Bush Iraq policy and the near perfect negation of that “entire way of thinking,” his policy analyst’s version of buyer’s remorse has him equally distraught:
Even though I think Obama has been correct to steer clear of the morass, I’m haunted by the possibility that an earlier intervention in Syria could have averted the current catastrophe. …I’m bitterly unsatisfied with the idea that the most powerful country in the world couldn’t have changed the outcome.
The difference between Duss and those nonsensical interventionists seems to be that, when they find themselves “bitterly unsatisfied” in the face of oncoming “catastrophe,” they are moved to action.
The difference between Duss and the President, however, seems merely a difference in affect: “[I]f Obama is similarly haunted, he doesn’t show it.” As for practical alternatives, the ones that might conceivably have prevented the “catastrophe” or the “tragedy,” the good mindset does not seem to allow for any. In Duss’s rendering, its fatalistic passivity extends even to itself:
Obama has not ended the mindset that got us into Iraq, but he’s made progress in changing it… The question, which only time will tell, is whether that change will endure.
If the systematic application of the desired policy leaves even its proponents bitterly unsatisfied with and haunted by the tragedies and catastrophes it either produces or does nothing to avert, then its prospects may be dim. The main question may be which will prove intolerable first, the growing dissatisfaction, or the next catastrophe.