Syria Through the 9/11 Lens

Steve Saideman reflects on the trajectory of American foreign policy in the twelve years since the 9/11 attacks.
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September 11, 2013
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Twelve years ago today, American foreign policy shifted from a focus on the Balkans, and a reluctance to incur significant casualties, to the Mideast, and a willingness to absorb the costs of dealing with threats both real and imagined.  The debate about Syria this week in the U.S. Congress and around the world is a reminder of how much and how little has changed since 9/11. 

In the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S., it was relatively easy for the Bush Administration to sell the American public on a war to deal with the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  The media, the Congress, and many others went right along with it.  There was much concern and even opposition voiced by international relations scholars of all backgrounds, but they were ignored (not stifled, just ignored).  Compare that to the past week, during which the media has provided outlets not only for proponents and opponents of intervening in Syria, but also for those who remain ambivalent, and the contrast is pretty striking.

While the decision to send the mission to a vote in Congress has puzzled many, Obama has done the American people a huge favor. This time around, they’ve gotten to see some real testimony; there have been tough questions, and conflicting answers.  Sure, Bush managed to get a resolution out of Congress, but it was a confused mandate at best.  For the Democrats, it was the tool Bush needed to pry more support out of the United Nations Security Council, and necessary to avoid getting burned politically for voting against a popular war. 

Ah, there is another big difference.  The American people have many reasons not to be enthusiastic about this intervention.  Not only has the Obama administration made a lousy case for this war, but it is the fourth or fifth or sixth significant conflict in and near the Mideast since 9/11.  No, make that the seventh – Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan. And only half of those – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen – had anything to do with 9/11.  Another big difference to previous interventions is that while Syria has supported terrorists (Hezbollah) that have struck at American targets, Assad is a target of al-Qaeda rather than their host. Regime change might just give America’s enemies a chance to run Syria, so again there is reason to be reluctant.

Indeed, the one enduring lesson of the post-9/11 decade is that regime change is not a clear and lasting fix to America’s problems.  The old days of a coup providing at least twenty years of repression-induced stability (Iran) are gone.  The U.S. has demonstrated since 9/11 quite an impressive ability to end regimes they dislike—Hussein, Taliban, Qaddafi—but has also proven repeatedly that replacing those regimes with friendly ones, and ensuring they stay that way, is a very difficult and very expensive enterprise. 

So, we have moved from the anger of 9/11 and the arrogance of the Bush Administration to the hesitation and ambivalence of the Obama Administration.  There are good reasons to be uncertain as we now understand far better than before that the use of force has consequences beyond the lifespan of particular leaders. 

Does this uncertainty spell the end of American leadership in the world?  Is this yet another sign of U.S. decline?  I do not think so.  The events surrounding Syria and the effort to get Congressional support might actually assure the world a bit that the U.S. is taking its responsibilities (those that come with great power) more carefully than before.  Obama may have wanted to bypass the Security Council, but he is not nearly as unilateral in impulse and in ideology as his predecessor.  The debate over Syria is actually reminiscent of the debates over Bosnia and Kosovo.  Which might mean that at least in this one way, the U.S. is getting over or beyond 9/11.  This may not be the case when it comes to the activities of its intelligence agencies, especially the National Security Agency, but when it comes to war, the present seems a bit more like the 1990s than the 2000s.  Given the outcomes of the past decade, this is probably a good thing.  Being wary of war can only be a good thing.