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Op-Ed

The end of U.S. exceptionalism

The debate over intervening in Syria says a lot about present-day America.

September 12, 2013|By Timothy Garton Ash

In all the long history of American presidential addresses, has there been an odder one than this? With the solemn grandeur appropriate to a declaration of war, President Obama informed the American people Tuesday night that a congressional vote on military action had been postponed because Russia was brokering a diplomatic initiative that might — or might not — put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. A Gettysburg Address this wasn't.

There will be many more turns on the road to Damascus, but the politics of these weeks since the criminal use of chemical weapons in Syria on Aug. 21 already tell us a lot about the United States. First and foremost, they tell us what Obama acknowledged in his televised address, quoting the words of a letter sent him by a veteran: "This nation is sick and tired of war."

Yes, the shadow of being misled by Colin Powell (of all people) about the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction hangs over this debate, as over European ones. But that's not the main point for most Americans. According to a New York Times/CBS poll this week, 75% of Americans think the Syrian government "probably did" use chemical weapons against Syrian civilians — and still they're overwhelmingly against the U.S. military response that Obama advocated.

Every one of the countless members of Congress that I've seen interviewed on 24/7 cable news has acknowledged this, be they Republican or Democrat, for or against striking Syria. Only "three or four" out of at least 1,000 constituents he's talked to favor military action, reports Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, a Democrat and Obama supporter. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a rising star of the Republican Party, says his phone calls are "100 to 1" against war.

The American people are just sick and tired of it. They don't think it's done any good in the Middle East. It's cost trillions of dollars, while they've been losing their jobs and homes, struggling to get by, seeing their own roads, hospitals and schools decay. Now here's the great irony: This is Obama's own theme. He's the president who came into office to end "a decade of war" (a trademark phrase he used again in this speech) and concentrate on "nation-building at home," So the popular sentiment is one he both reflected and reinforced.

And — irony upon irony — if Obama's own best enemy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, had not self-interestedly ridden to the rescue at the eleventh hour, that very sentiment would probably have delivered a shattering blow to the Obama presidency. For when the week began, it looked as if Obama faced defeat in a vote in the House of Representatives, if not in the Senate.

"Isolationism" is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the United States has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after World War I. But this time feels different. Although the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch — and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

A few more specific ingredients of this American pie also deserve mention. One is Israel. It is hard to overstate the impact of concerns about Israel on U.S. foreign policy in general and its Middle East policy in particular. Some of the most chilling analysis I have read over these weeks identifies an Israeli realpolitik that concludes that the least worst outcome for Israel is that two sets of its archenemies, the Iran- and Hezbollah-backed Assad regime and the increasingly Sunni Islamist extremist and partly Al Qaeda-oriented rebels, should go on beating the living daylights out of each other.

"Our 'best-case scenario' is that they continue to busy themselves fighting each other and don't turn their attention to us," an unnamed Israeli intelligence officer told BuzzFeed.com. "Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that's the strategic thinking here," said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. This makes Machiavelli look like Gandhi.

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