In February 2003, massive rallies were held worldwide— including one of some 200,000 people in Washington, DC—to protest the impending invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition. President George W. Bush’s response when asked whether the protests had influenced his thinking at all was to scoff at them, saying “It's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group.
President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University last week represented the latest and probably most significant rhetorical shift away from the “war on terror” since he took office in January 2009. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said in one of the speech’s key passages. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
“Core al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” the president said. “Groups like AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that label themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”
Time will tell whether Obama puts real weight behind some of the changes articulated in the speech. There’s no question that it marked another important turn toward a more nuanced assessment of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. But like kids who have just had their favorite toy taken away, conservative hawks are freaking out.
In testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman made clear that the U.S. would continue to look for ways to raise the pressure on Tehran, even as it remained committed to a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But she also cautioned against steps that would foreclose diplomatic options or damage the international consensus that the administration has worked so effectively to forge. “As we move forward, it will be critical that we continue to move together and not take steps that undo the progress made so far,” Sherman said.
For those advocating greater intervention in Syria by the United States, the memory of Iraq has turned into a real inconvenience.
“Iraq is not Syria,” proclaimed the headline of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s op-ed on Monday, by way of arguing for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Because of Iraq, Keller wrote, “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.”
Let’s grant that it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. The Iraq war, as costly a blunder as it was, should not discredit any and all military interventions, but it should—and has—raised the bar for when such interventions are necessary. What appears to persist, however, is the belief that “bold” U.S. moves—nearly always assumed to be military action—can change the situation for the better, and produce the outcomes that we would like to see.
And of those outcomes aren’t produced? Well, then it will be time for even bolder moves.
Ask yourself: Do you oppose putting U.S. troops everywhere, all the time? If you answered yes, you might be an isolationist, according to the word’s new definition. A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, based on a new NYT/CBS poll, warned that “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria right now.”
In the very next paragraph, however, we are told that, “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”
In other words, if you only support bombing unspecified foreign countries with flying robots, you're exhibiting an isolationist streak.