Truman National Security Project

US handling of the Syrian Crisis: What Will Our Legacy Be?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Syria during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister in Stockholm

There has been, over the past quarter century, a certain script that the prelude to America’s use of force has adhered to. There is identification of the crisis situation; a call for support from the “international community”; gestures of support from allies; and a speech from the Oval Office announcing the actions that have been taken in the national interest and for the long-term security of the international community.

This time, with the offenses in Syria so clear and grievous, and with Presidential credibility on the line, it seemed that the familiar process would once again roll forward. After all, red lines needed to be reinforced.

But then there was a bump in the road.

The British Parliament, for the first time in two centuries, denied a Prime Minister his request for the use of force. Then, just when many expected American airstrikes to be announced, President Obama called for a Congressional debate on the matter.

Of course, Congress did nothing.

Enter Vladimir Putin. In a seeming bid to secure the Nobel Peace Prize, the Russian President rode to the rescue just in time to make the whole situation worthy of a TV movie.

This might seem to be chaos personified. But there are reasons for what happened. And while the outcome of the instant situation in Syria is actually fairly satisfactory, the most important question to ask is not, “Why did this situation unfold as it did?” but rather, “How will America’s handling of the Syrian situation impact America’s place in the world?”

Three main points need to be taken away from the Syrian situation:

First, the 9/11-decade is over.

Since the attacks of September 11th, there has been huge expansion of Presidential power in the service of promoting national security. The shock of 9/11 led to a doubling of defense spending, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the use of lethal drone strikes and special forces raids, and the vast expansion of the surveillance capabilities and operations of the intelligence community.

The debate surrounding Syria was the first time since 9/11 that the American people and the US Congress did not give deference to the President on a matter that has been considered well within his exclusive competency since 2001. This represents a new kind of collective national security decision-making.

Second, our traditional allies in the western alliance have neither the will, nor the capabilities, to effectively provide decisive  assistance in military operations beyond their own borders.

When there is a violation of international law – be it a massacre, a genocide, or an invasion – there may be worldwide calls for action, but at the end of the day there will not be decisive assistance from any nation save the United States of America. Indeed, the slowly unraveling NATO assistance mission in Afghanistan will likely mark the high water mark for western allied action in this decade.
Third, the American people have an allergic reaction to further US military action or deeper political involvement in the Middle East.

Many factors are at fault. The byzantine politics; the US investment of blood, treasure and attention to a region seemingly indifferent at best and hostile at worst to our attempts to bring peace; and a lack of stability despite our best tries, have all led to the American public to dramatically disengage from the Middle East and elsewhere.

But this begs the question – what has US engagement with the world in the last quarter century meant for us anyway? For too many of our citizens, the narrative is that globalization has meant job insecurity at best, and job loss at worst. It has meant trade deficits and the slow and steady erosion of our market share in the world economy. It has meant great gains for the middle class in Korea and losses for the middle class in Kansas. And it has meant seemingly endless foreign entanglements and wars that have earned us no credit and bred only global resentment against the United States.

Books will be written about the rollercoaster ride of diplomacy centered on the Syrian civil war. But the larger question before all of us is now, and will be in the years to come, whether the United States of America should remain a global power, capable of exercising enough influence to shape our security environment, advance our values and promote our prosperity, or shall we say it is all too much?

That is a question for our great democracy to debate.  And so let it begin right here, right now.

Scott Bates is the President of the Center for National Policy