In this time of generalized peace, there have been six military campaigns of rescue, waged by the United States. All had taken place in an extended arc of Islamic geography – the first Gulf war of 1990-1991, the Bosnian campaign in 1995, the deliverance of Kosovo four years later, the destruction of the Taliban emirate in Kabul in 2001, the return to Iraq in 2003, and the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi’s despotism in 2011. The expedition against the Taliban aside, these wars of rescue were all hotly debated and argued over. There had been no rush to arms, no eagerness to take on imperial burdens abroad. If this be an American empire, reluctance has been one of its most discernable attributes. The sword was drawn more out of moral embarrassment than out of hankering for power.
We might have come to the end of that trail. Admittedly, I write as Syria unravels before our eyes – before the eyes of the steward of American power. By a mix of omission and commission, we have let Homs and Aleppo be, we have offered “non-lethal” aid in the most lethal of brutal wars. Our principal alibi was the uncertainty of what would unfold in that country were the despot to fall. In our commander-in-chief, in his “cosmopolitan” biography, in his lawyerly search for the fine line between just and unjust wars, we found adequate shelter from moral claims and responsibility. We have been here before, it must be conceded. Bosnia and Sarajevo were subjected to a veritable genocide, in the early 1990s. Two of our presidents, George Bush the elder, and Bill Clinton, had done their best to keep Bosnia at bay. Bill Clinton hid behind the phantom of “Balkan ghosts,” and ancient millennial feuds that no campaign of military rescue could ameliorate. But still, after the horror of Srebrenica, the American cavalry turned up. Richard Holbrooke, that “unquiet American,” took us into that conflict. Our sense of shame and guilt swayed the matter. We have been rid of that guilt.
There is no Richard Holbrooke to remind a reluctant president that there are times and places that call for the exercise of American power; indeed Holbrooke himself, before his premature death in 2010, had been sidelined by Mr. Obama, ridiculed in the president’s councils as a throwback to a bygone era. A new history begins with his stewardship, Mr. Obama believed. American power, on Obama’s watch, had been committed against Qaddafi. The tyrant had done the people of Libya an unintended favor: he had broken with the manual of the tyrants by announcing that his armor was on the way to Benghazi to hunt its people down like “rats.” Mr. Obama did the right thing, but let it be known that the Libyan intervention was a “51-49 thing.” We didn’t hang around Libya, we accepted no burdens there. Barack Obama was silent about that campaign of rescue. Libya would not be the unfolding of an Obama doctrine in foreign lands.
Leaders are both authors and captives of popular sentiments and forces larger than themselves. The election of 2012 codified American disenchantment with foreign causes and burdens. The coalition that gave Mr. Obama his mandate would not be stirred by the call of distant fields. No one came out and announced the death of liberal internationalism, but the impulse that gave it life and power had drained out of the public space. At the top economic end of that coalition, the progressives had become isolationists. They had used the disenchantment with the Iraq war as evidence that our touch sullies those we would aid abroad, that the foreign world is destined to be truculent and ungrateful. The economically disadvantaged made no secret of what they wanted: the redistributive state. A recent report signals a monumental change in American life: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamps assistance, has soared 70 percent since 2008. Some 28 million people were covered by it in 2008, and now the numbers have soared to 47.8 million. The costs of the program were $30 billion in 2007, and they have risen to $75 billion in 2012. Indeed the blocks that delivered Mr. Obama his second mandate – the African-American votes, the Hispanics, and the liberal white professionals – are all agreed that retrenchment abroad is the way out of our economic maladies and the proper response to a foreign world seething with troubles. Now and then a nation’s reality diverges from the prose and the imagery that it had spun about itself. Pity those abroad who still expect rescue by the American cavalry.