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The 'Let's Not Even Try' Foreign Policy

Barack Obama's choice on Syria will define his presidency

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

In Syria, Barack Obama is now at the turning point of his presidency, both for his foreign policy and for his own self-definition as a president.

Over the past five and a half years, the nation has struggled to come up with the right definition for Obama. Was he a dove (Iraq) or a hawk (surge in Afghanistan, drones)? Was he an idealist (speeches in Cairo and Prague in 2009, Arab Spring of 2011) or a cold realist (Iran in 2009, Egypt in 2013)? How much did he really value the goals of democratic change, or of stopping the spread  of weapons of mass destruction?

Through it all, Obama has seemed to cling to one underlying strategy, the one that usually helped to explain all the other twists and turns: He wanted to reduce America's footprint in the world, to scale back its extensive commitments abroad so that over time, he could try to revitalize the American economy.

Or, to put the same strategy in the way that the Obama White House thinks of it, the side was to "rebalance"—to scale back in other strategic regions of the world, namely Europe and the Middle East, in order to devote more resources to Asia, because that region is of ever growing strategic importance to the United States.

Whether it is called scaling back or rebalancing, this broad strategy was what explained the surge in Afghanistan (give the military 18 months to achieve what it could) and the decision to withdraw most of those forces by 2014. It explained the drones (relatively cheap) and Libya (let the French and British take the lead).

For two years, Obama has followed this scaling-back strategy in Syria. In recent months, sources in the administration have described Obama as far more opposed to American intervention in Syria than those working beneath him in the administration, including the Cabinet secretaries (Kerry and Hagel) or the National Security Council staff.

And now, he is at the point where his scaling-back policy is starting to undercut or demolish many of the other foreign-policy goals of his administration—and, indeed, his own personal ideals dating back to his childhood.

Not surprisingly, Obama's earliest interest in foreign policy was in opposition to apartheid in South Africa. But other than that, his first known involvement was to support the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s. As president, starting with his Prague speech in 2009, he has often said one of his top goals was preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But there seems no way Obama can justify, either to himself or anyone else, a commitment to banning nuclear weapons but a laissez-faire approach to chemical weapons, which are now being used in warfare for the first time in a quarter-century. The drive to ban chemical weapons was fuelled by the horrors of World War I, the anti-nuclear movement by the horrors of World War II. Opposing WMD means banning both. A failure to respond to the use in Syria now wouldn't be just a failure to make progress; it would be a major retrogression.

Not much is left these days of the idealism that Obama gave voice to at the time of the Arab Spring; it has fallen by the wayside as a result of the coup d'etat in Egypt. But a failure to respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons would really be the death knell (no pun intended) for Obama's impressive Arab Spring rhetoric of two years ago.

As for his "pivot" towards Asia, all of Obama's speeches meant to reassure our Asian allies of our continuing and revived interest the region would end up having little impact if our policies in Syrian make it appear as the United States is so wavering that America's idealism and its power are both on the wane.

Worst of all is the way in which Obama's recent policies of fervent restraint undermine his administration's past assertions about America's role in the world. Over the past few years, as Obama's fringe critics have accused him of wanting or seeking decline, the president and his aides have come up with bland but plausible formulations to defend their policies. We're not trying to bring about America's decline in the world, they argue; rather, we're trying to do what's necessary to preserve American role in the world for another 50 years or so.

But it is hard to square that belief with Obama's policy of fervent restraint in Syria and Egypt. Indeed, the only power Obama seems to be asserting these days is an ironic one: it is an assertive belief in the presidential prerogative to be passive. The existing federal law says if there is a military coup d'etat against a democratic government, then American foreign aid will be cut off. All the arguments against cutting off aid—we will lose influence with the Egyptian generals, etc., etc.—are more-or-less debatable arguments, but ones that Obama should make to Congress to try to get the law changed. To ignore the law is to increase presidential power (just as the right to declare war years ago slipped quietly from Congress to the president.)

Overall, Obama has seemed recently as if he is morphing before our eyes from someone who believes, rightly, that the United States can't always influence world events as much we would like, to someone who believes we shouldn't exert influence, and shouldn't even try. Even he must see now that his policy of fervent restraint has reached the end of its usefulness.

James Mann is a resident fellow at Johns Hopkins University's  School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House  to Redefine American Power.