Thursday, September 13, 2012

A test for a President

U.S. Consulate in Benghazi burns. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters
Now we will see what Barack Obama is made of.

In an election year, can he navigate the howling of the imperial caucus, of the Israel-first caucus, and of our domestic Muslim-hating Know Nothings? A U.S. ambassador is dead in Libya, victim to passions stirred by racist xenophobes who use their freedom of speech and of religion to demean others. Meanwhile the Prime Minister of Israel pushes the United States toward an attack on Iran in response to unproven suspicions and Iranian posturing that touches no U.S. interest.

Can Obama resist election year temptations to wave the bloody shirt? Will he deploy our unequalled power, as in the last decade, simply because the United States has no military challengers?

The proper -- the patriotic -- job of any current U.S. leader is to manage imperial waning gracefully. The rest of the world was pretty much prostrate after World War II; the long Cold War and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union sealed U.S. pre-eminence; this concealed the enormous waste of time, treasure and talent that a permanent imperial pose did to our country. The costly inconclusive wars of the 1990s and the 2000s only show that, for the U.S., waging war is the default option. Meanwhile, letting the home country rot is acceptable to much of our elite.

The Obama administration's foreign policy has not been what I would have wanted. Democratic pols have learned they must prove they are as stupidly butch, as triumphantly imperial, as the other guys. Timely withdrawal from Iraq and prospective retreat from Afghanistan had to be cloaked in bellicose gestures and ongoing chest-thumping.

But the people get that more war is not in our interest. Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy has summarized some current polling on our attitudes to new wars, especially in the Middle East.

I was struck by the fact that 67% now see the Iraq war as "not worth it" -- the highest result since the Chicago Council started asking that question on 2003, and crucial context for any discussion of U.S. policy options towards Syria. 68% believe (correctly) that the invasion of Iraq has not had a positive effect on the spread of democracy in the Middle East -- neocon fantasies aside, if anything Iraq's horrors provided a cautionary tale to most in the region about what could go wrong and probably helped prop up authoritarian regimes in the region by making them look better in comparison. 

Beyond the retrospective view of Iraq, 71% in the Chicago Council survey say (correctly, in my humble opinion) that the Iraq experience should make the U.S. "more cautious about the use of military force against rogue regimes."  This is consistent with a wide range of other polling, which consistently shows very low support for U.S. military action in Syria. …The broader theme is one of humility about what the U.S. can or should attempt to accomplish through military means abroad. … And it's striking that 70% oppose a U.S. military strike against Iran over its nuclear program without UN authorization. 

There's been plenty of chest thumping but mostly the Obama administration has concentrated on trying to repair some of the damage at home, damage left by their cowboy predecessors. We need an administration that will stay on that course.

When overt military actions are avoided, the space for the struggles to restore democracy and fairness grows wider. In this election year, after the provocation in Libya, with the Israeli government and the domestic Israel Lobby yapping for war, we will see what Barack Obama is made of.

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