Michael H. Hunt: Obama and Syria: Trapped in a Web of Words

Home and Abroad: U.S. Foreign Relations in Historical Perspective[This article is cross-posted from the author’s blog, On Washington and the World.]

Language is potent, a truth confirmed by President Obama’s recent, reluctant decision to escalate the U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. The President has given every sign of wanting to give priority to “nation building at home.” Important to popular welfare, this course is arguably also indispensable to shoring up the sagging foundation on which U.S. global influence rests. An electorate pinched economically and a federal government living beyond its means is going to impose international constraints. Obama is right to consider popular discontent and national insolvency big deals that deserve urgent attention.

Despite this carefully calculated commitment to national recuperation and international restraint, Obama has fallen prey to the old familiar axioms with their continuing power to shape thinking in Washington and the terms of policy debate. Read the arguments of the interventionists determined to see the Assad regime ousted. They speak of “resolve” that U.S. leaders have to demonstrate to a watching world. They point to a “responsibility” that the United States has to live up to. They invoke “interests” that demand protection. They talk of “credibility” at stake.

Each of these vaporous notions is advanced with great certitude. Each draws its strength from a foreign policy discourse that has over some seven decades served as the natural language of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Free of any detailed demonstration of the truths they encapsulate, these magic words depend on notions ingrained in the nationalist imagination to carry the day. Precisely because of its ritualistic quality and its association with nationalist and policy orthodoxy, the appeal to resolve, responsibility, interest, and credibility do not invite discussion or scrutiny. The mere pronouncement suffices. Thanks to this gossamer stuff, those clamoring for more decisive U.S. action in Syria have entangled Obama.

Yet the world in which this vocabulary gained currency has changed. This is the point that critics of deeper involvement in the Syrian crisis have made in a variety of ways. The Middle East which the interventionists with their heads filled with old truisms seek to manage is in the grip of new regional sentiments and under the sway of rising regional powers. No less important, the shape of the international community has changed with the rise of new powers impatient with U.S. dictation and uncomprehending in the face of ritual language coming out of Washington. Finally, the domestic world in which old catchwords are supposed to mobilize support is more recalcitrant. A U.S. population polarized and pinched has problems enough at home. Any attempt to decisively sway the outcome of the fighting in Syria would deepen the disarray.

Language is in its potency a trap—in this case an inducement to action even when careful consideration warns of potentially dire consequences. Put differently, the axioms handed down from earlier policy practice have demonstrated their capacity to overrule prudent calculation.

That insight leaves us with a set of genuine questions:

  • Do proponents of intervention not recognize a world transformed—or do they see changes but think they can ignore or reverse them? Do they really think the imagined glory days of the World War II and the Cold War when the magical words became orthodoxy can really be restored?
  • How long do the consequences of costly and even counterproductive decisions have to pile up before the justificatory language is discredited? Or does the accumulating damage to U.S. standing and material conditions make the comforting familiarity of the old language even more attractive?

These questions by their very nature suggest the United States is in the throes of transition, and the answers, if only we knew them, would tell us how long and difficult that transition will be.


Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (with Steven I. Levine), The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.