Much Bigger Than Obama

I will not defend Barack Obama. Nor will I attack him. After pushing off a Syria strike, the U.S. president has awoken the critics, especially Israelis aghast at his apparent wimpiness toward the tough guys of the Middle East. The criticism has some merit, especially through our Israeli lens. From the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, a less hesitant, more directed approach would have been welcome.

But, more deeply, the critics miss the mark. The saga over Syria intervention is not really a tale about Obama. Its most important themes are much bigger than him. The debate is another milestone in the evolution of American thinking on foreign policy, and a different figure in the White House would not restore the America of a decade or two ago. We in Israel should be much more worried, and we should focus on the right questions.

The American public has decided to stop being a freier. For decades, the United States served as the primary provider of global public goods. Most importantly, it sought to maintain international peace and security and enforce a system of rules that promoted it. Here, the United States took the reins and picked up the tab, while free-rider states enjoyed the fruits of America’s international labor.

When the United States failed in its task, as in Rwanda or Darfur, the failure sparked soul-searching about an abdication of responsibility. Without the United States, who would have prevented genocide, stopped nuclear proliferation, or brokered peace in ethnic conflicts? Few raised the issue of cost or price. The United States was the world’s “indispensable nation,” even if allies such as Britain pitched in. So what if others enjoyed the benefits without bearing the costs?

Now, some in American politics want to dispense with the global role; it is too expensive. As a noted scholar of foreign policy said in a recent address, “The Republican Party has moved from being the party of power to the party of cost-cutters.” National security conservatives like John McCain are challenged by an upstart tea party movement whose tone is more libertarian-isolationist than ever.

Meanwhile, among Democrats, the Iraq War galvanized skeptics of military involvement, without clearly elevating those who would replace military muscle with robust diplomacy. Liberal interventionists like Susan Rice and Samantha Power remain on the scene but under challenge.

These are not only elite phenomena. On Syria, American public opinion is behind Obama. Some 79% support his decision to seek Congress’s okay. Even after the gassing of over 1,000 civilians, even after assurances that no pilots—let alone ground troops—will be involved, still the American public has not swung decisively behind involvement.

The public’s judgment is not kind, but it may be rational. The income of the average American family has not climbed for three decades. Politicians convey that they will direct resources toward shoring up the American middle class, or at least toward cutting the ballooning national debt that threatens it over the long term. Besides, why should a family in suburban Philadelphia or along Florida’s I-4 corridor foot the bill for the world’s police force? The issue of cost is outside the spotlight of the debate on Syria, but it lurks on stage. American national pride now seems tethered to propagating the American Dream at home, not an American Century abroad.

From the domestic American perspective, this argument may have merit. For Israel, though, it is not good. Israel has benefited from an active U.S. role in the world. The strong American hand has helped deter Israel’s foes and enhance Israel’s value to potential friends, who often view ties with Israel as a tool for securing favor with an active superpower. The zeitgeist of American pullback is to our detriment.

Facing these trends, Israel and its supporters need not be bystanders. American pro-Israel groups can form an alliance with others supporting an activist U.S. foreign policy. This could include lobbying on issues unrelated to Israel or even to the Middle East. Such a move risks mission creep but could both broaden Israel’s circle of supporters and strengthen a current within U.S. foreign policy consistent with Israel’s interests.

Meanwhile, the debate here in Israel must move on. Enough with the whining over Obama’s deeds or misdeeds. The evolving American political dynamic transcends one decision made by one decider on one Friday night stroll. What will Israel do if the United States is not willing to put forward a credible military option toward our region’s bad actors, even in extreme circumstances? Which capabilities does Israel need to prioritize and which new partnerships to forge? Most importantly, most of the Israeli establishment has argued—in a cross between conventional wisdom and wishful thinking—that the United States will not abandon the Middle East in a pivot to Asia. That contention should be challenged and the consequences probed.

These are the real questions coming out of this Syria episode. The attacks on Obama and defenses of him distort the conversation. The issues underlying the Syria debate are much bigger than him.

About the Author
Owen Alterman is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies affiliated with Tel Aviv University. He made aliyah in 2010 and lives in Tel Aviv.