Visiting Washington is always a thrill, eliciting in me the same feelings I remember as a child when visiting a really great zoo. This is not a criticism of either Washington or zoos, only a descriptive statement about the spectacular, yet also the often wild, nature of the anthropology of power. I am always astounded by the debate in the town – regardless of the year, the incumbent party or the issues at hand – about whether the United States should use its considerable power in a certain situation around the world. This legacy changes very slowly, and very little. After George W. Bush and the madcap Vice President Dick Cheney went wild with the use of the American military to wage a “global war on terror,” President Barack Obama in his first term broadly drew back on using too much military power abroad. He has gradually withdrawn from Iraq and is doing so in Afghanistan, and has instead relied heavily on four main tactics: using unmanned aerial drones as assassination machines around the world, playing a supporting role in armed interventions led by others (such as in Libya and Mali), training local troops around the world to suppress terrorists or insurrectionary movements (in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Mali and many others), and applying sanctions and the threat of force to achieve the desired political goals (in Iran, Syria, North Korea).
Today, several discussions take place simultaneously about what the U.S. should do in Egypt, Syria and Iran, in particular, along with whether the U.S. should revive its chronically failed mediation role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of the refreshing new developments in Washington and across the U.S. is a more open discussion of whether America should do anything at all in situations where its national interests are not directly threatened. These discussions seem somewhat halfhearted, though, because the escapades in distant Asian lands have been disappointing, and the citizenry is much more concerned about domestic priorities, especially the economy.
Barack Obama’s America is fatigued from war, aware of the failures of its war-making legacy, and unable fiscally to sustain such adventures. Americans broadly are tired of sending their troops far away to countries they do not understand and cannot reconfigure to their liking, as was the expectation during the George W. Bush administration that attacked both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Today, the U.S. has very little to show for its massive expenditures of money, lives and political reputation. The compulsory flag-waving and “support the troops” emotionalism persists, and it is sincere, because backing the troops abroad is one of the few truly unifying national phenomena in the United States, which is otherwise deeply fragmented along ethnic, racial, ideological and income lines.
Power in a zoo is controlled by segregating the animals in separate cages, and keeping apart those of the same species that might hurt each other or the humans who visit. Power in Washington is much more imprecisely controlled and used. What makes the city so fascinating is the constant possibility of the massive use of force, usually with little consideration for the full consequences other than how political circles in the U.S. will react.
Men and a few women in Washington make decisions based heavily on their inclinations or emotional reactions, or often on the strength of their juvenile desire to project American values across the world (such as promoting democracy in Asian tribal lands; the high point of American idiocy must have been the moves by L. Paul Bremer in 2003-2004 to develop a national election system in Iraq based on Iowa-like primaries). Historians one day will provide us with a thorough account of the full consequences of the two massive American military assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan, measured in terms of the costs to those societies as well as to the U.S. itself.
Because the costs have been so high, and the consequences to date so erratic, there seems to be more caution in the U.S. about getting involved in new military adventures, especially in the Middle East. This is a positive development in principle, but its negative underbelly is that this caution on foreign military adventurism seems primarily to be a short-term reaction to recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not appear to reflect a meaningful reassessment of the underlying principle that continues to drive American foreign policy: that the U.S. has the capability and the right to intervene anywhere in the world to promote peace, security, stability and American interests – with all four of these goals loosely defined by American politicians who usually pay no respect to the sovereignty of other nations or the sentiments of other people around the world.
So we are likely to see the U.S. remain cautious on involvement in countries that are passing through difficult conditions, such as Syria and Egypt, but in situations such as the standoff with Iran the threats and drumbeat of war persist, if with slightly more caution than in previous years.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.