Syria Is a Very Minor Blip in the Course of US Foreign Policy


I don’t think anyone is really much interested in yet another tedious thumbsucker about What Syria Means, but the tone of the commentary over the past few days has simply gotten insane. I know I’ll get laughed at for writing a typical Kevin Drum post that tells everyone to calm down a bit, but for God’s sake. Can we all calm down a bit? Some quick bullet points:

  • Yes, Obama’s handling of Syria was initially pretty fubared. He didn’t understand how much support he could count on for air strikes; he was taken by surprise over the intensity of the opposition; and he ended up hurting his own cause with some pretty silly statements.
  • At the same time, can we talk? The question of whether to bomb Syria for a few days is pretty trivial as these things go. This is no Iraq and it’s no Vietnam. Hell, it’s not even a Suez crisis.
  • American credibility has barely been scratched. Our foreign policy is intact; the rest of the world is pretty clear on what it is; and our reluctance to engage in military action one time out of dozens of opportunities simply doesn’t change anyone’s view of American power. If a congressional repudiation of a president happened over and over, that would change some views. But once? Please.
  • Obama’s leadership chops have likewise barely been scratched. They were pretty low to begin with, and Syria hasn’t changed that much.
  • And while we’re talking about that: being willing to change course isn’t a sign of vacillation or weakness. It’s simply nuts to think this. The Russian proposal for UN inspections represented a pretty good opportunity to salvage a decent outcome from the congressional mutiny; it was a chance to nudge Vladimir Putin in a constructive direction; and it doesn’t preclude future military action in any way. Only someone with near-clinical insecurity issues would reject this opportunity simply because it represented a change of course.
  • Nor is the latest round of diplomacy a triumph for Putin or Bashar al-Assad or Iran. Russia continues to be yoked to a crumbling pariah regime; Syria actually is a crumbling pariah regime; and Iran has gotten nothing out of this. See Dan Drezner for more straight talk on this score.
  • Syria will have precisely zero effect on domestic fights over the budget and the debt ceiling. The whole idea is preposterous, and I think everyone knows it. The Republican gridlock freight train has been on track for months and it hasn’t budged an inch since spring. Syria hasn’t had the slightest impact on this.

As Anthony Weiner would say, chillax, people. This whole affair is a pretty minor foreign policy barnacle, and its long-term effect on both American power and Obama’s ability to get things done is tiny. How about if we all tone down the apocalyptic language?

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