The End of U.S. Idealism

The world would be a safer in the long run if the U.S. could reclaim the moral high ground.

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It is appearing more likely by the hour that everyone will find a way to stumble toward the exits on the Syria issue: The Obama administration will agree to some sort of international supervision of Syria's chemical weapons, declare victory and go home. Hawks will be able to claim that the threat of U.S. military action produced a break-through for peace. Isolationists will crow that they won. Assad's regime, like Kim Jong Un's in North Korea, likely will find a way to keep on doing what it's doing with its weapons. The international community will be able to feel morally righteous at no cost. Congress can move on to destroying the country's credit rating. The American public can return to the new football season.

It's a win-win for everyone, at least if you're cynical. And the latest polling indicates that you probably are.

Americans overwhelmingly believe that the only basis for American military entanglement is promotion and protection of American self-interest; "humanitarianism" has virtually no support as a basis for risking American blood or treasure. At least as to the first – self-interest as the basis for entanglement – this is simply consistent with America's long-held position, starting with George Washington's famous farewell address warning against foreign involvement. The enduring nature of this basic American reflex has been demonstrated more in the breach: Since America's emergence as a global power, where the U.S. has engaged militarily it generally has been either with skepticism beforehand (both World Wars until direct attacks were launched on Americans, the Balkans, Libya) or regret afterwards (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq).

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Nonetheless, American ambivalence has run in tandem with American millenarianism – a conviction that our country is founded on ideals, and that we have an obligation to promote and defend those ideals not just at home but around the world. Yes, threats to our own "selfish" security or commercial interests – from those of the United Fruit Corporation to American oil companies – have often motivated foreign policy and even military action. But U.S. interventionism abroad always has been underpinned as well by a sense of national values, of right and wrong, and of an obligation to defend those values and, in particular, other people.

That sense of idealism is obviously gone now. It's not hard to understand why. For many Americans, the onset with 9/11 of a troubled 21st Century resulted in a realization that much of the enmity and danger we now face in the world is the result of "blowback" from prior interventionist policies. For many more, any attempt to right this by launching a new crusade not just to punish those who attacked us but also to bring the light of democracy to benighted corners of the world has been irredeemably tarnished by the disingenuous sales job that accompanied it, not to mention the dozen years of bloodshed, debt and compromise of the values we purport to represent that have followed. It's easy to see how idealism has gotten a bad name in the new millennium.

In contrast, it's nowhere near as easy to see how we can take any action in Syria that doesn't make things worse: The administration's stated objective of achieving no strategic change within Syria but simply "punishing" Assad for using chemical weapons, scaled back, delayed and telegraphed sufficiently in advance to ensure no real outcome (and to reduce domestic opposition), leaves one wondering what lessons Assad – let alone any other future malefactor – is possibly supposed to learn. On the other hand, more assertive actions carry not just the risk but the near-certainty of further civilian suffering, empowerment of actors at least as inimical to the US as Assad, perhaps deeper military entanglement in and responsibility for the country, and, ultimately, further anti-U.S. "blowback."

[Vote: Should Obama Support the U.N. Taking Control of Syria's Chemical Weapons?]

Still, I can't help but find all this realism dispiriting. It is one thing to lose our innocence; it is another to lose our idealism. It is one thing to recognize that jumping into the middle of a gang rumble you happen upon may not be so smart; it's another to see someone beating a helpless victim on a street and to keep on walking on the basis that it's their business, not yours.

Is that naively idealistic? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as strategic in the longer view. As Thomas Madden has written in "Empires of Trust," Rome, like the United States, built a great world empire by seeking (at least originally) not to build an empire but rather, as with American security concerns, simply to build a bulwark for its own protection against the depredations of, and thus entanglements with, the foreign world. It did this by providing a unique framework of trust amongst other peoples who understood that Rome, uniquely among nations, would defend its values rather than its interests, even – if not especially – where the latter seemingly conflicted with the former. The United States built a similar position for itself in the modern world with the remarkable international institutions it built in the wake of World War II.

That sense of justice, unfortunately, often took a back-seat to perceived self-interest. This led first to the aforementioned "blowback" abroad, then the last decade of disillusionment at home. Now, sadly, when we consider acting, against all indications of self-interest, purely because of deeply moral outrage against chemical-weapons use, even those in Syria who stand to gain from it suspect us of selfish (if difficult-to-identify) ulterior motives. We and the world would be safer over the long run were the U.S. to reclaim the moral high ground, and its own heritage, of acting strongly, decisively and reliably in defense of the noblest human values, and minding its own business otherwise, rather than the other way around.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Another Poll Shows Swing Voters Think Republicans Are Obstructionists
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