How America reached a ‘What do you expect us to do’ foreign policy

Getty Images

When Syria’s government launched a major offensive against a rebel-held area near Damascus in late February, there was pressure on the United States and Western powers to stop the killing.  But after seven years of conflict in Syria, there appears to be growing fatigue in Washington over humanitarian concerns in Syria. “I don’t know what some of you expect us to do,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said at a briefing on Feb. 22.

The reticence to do more is a far cry from the certainty that underpinned U.S. interventions in the 1990s. There seems to be a certain nostalgia in the United States for the 10 years after the Cold War. Movies and TV shows have explored the O.J. Simpson trial, the Waco standoff and L.A. riots. There is even a new Hulu series about the pre-9/11 hunt for al Qaeda, based on the book “The Looming Tower.”

{mosads}However, what the past 20 years have shown is just how much things have changed in foreign affairs and why Washington fears the consequences of doing more in Syria or in places such as Myanmar where there is substantial evidence of atrocities against civilians.


Announcing air strikes on Iraq in 1991, President George H.W. Bush quoted Thomas Paine: “We have a real chance at this new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the U.N.’s founders.” He argued that “no nation will be permitted to brutally assault its neighbor.” That policy was expanded in 1992 when Bush sent Marines into Somalia to help solve a humanitarian crises. “American action is often necessary as a catalyst for broader involvement of the community of nations,” he said. In 1994, over some objections about U.S. action in Haiti, President Bill Clinton said U.S. interests must be protected and America must “stop the brutal atrocities that threaten tens of thousands of Haitians.”

Clinton justified intervention in Kosovo in 1999 with claims that the United States was acting to prevent a wider war “to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive.” In his 2002 speech to the United Nations, President George W. Bush said that “we cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather.” He argued that removing Saddam Hussein from power would be standing up for security and “the permanent rights and the hopes of mankind.” Bush’s doctrine often is characterized as “preemption,” or the need to act before dangers grow. This was an outgrowth of Clinton’s humanitarian interventions and Bush Sr.’s “new world order.”

A common theme ran through these interventions. Each president vowed that the United States would come home as soon as possible and that wider conflict was not in U.S. interest.

In many ways, President Barack Obama’s decision to reduce the U.S. footprint abroad, withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, was a reaction to the hangover of preemption. When Obama announced airstrikes against Islamic State in August 2014, he said, “The United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crises in the world.” This is eerily similar to Bush Sr.’s “I understand the United States alone cannot right the world’s wrongs.” But Obama’s policy was actually a further climb-down from “acting alone” to “should not intervene.” However, Obama believed that the United States could not “turn a blind eye” to the genocidal actions ISIS was carrying out against the Yazidi minority.

Leaked comments from Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Syrian opposition in September 2016 at the United Nations spell out U.S. reticence to do more in President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. “It’s a hard choice, I’m sorry. … We’ve lost thousands of young Americans in other countries and it is pretty difficult right now to get Americans to say they will send Americans to invade another country and have a war with Sunni and Shia extremists,” he tells an anti-Assad activist. “So you think the only solution is for someone to come in and get rid of Assad; who is going to do that?” he asks. “Three years ago, you,” the dissident responds.

President Donald Trump came into office with even more skepticism than Obama regarding U.S. actions abroad. However, the Trump administration is managing the largest global U.S. special forces commitment in history. In his May 2017 comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said the United States was involved in more than 80 countries, with 8,000 men and women deployed daily. This accounts for U.S. operations in Africa and throughout the Middle East, mostly to confront groups such as ISIS or to work with local partner forces.

This has created a Janus-faced aspect to U.S. policy. America’s foreign policy has changed from big-picture idealism of the 1990s to managing conflict, minimizing U.S. casualties and focusing on pinpoint precision. The United States remains good at accomplishing small operations; it is not as good at coming up with long-term goals. Kerry told the Syrian dissidents the United States has put in an “extraordinary amount of arms in” Syria, mostly to support Syrian rebels. CNN senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh argued that the United States won’t do more in Syria because “we simply don’t care.”  Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues in National Interest that the United States should “declare victory in Syria and come home.”

Neither of those assessments is correct. The United States does care about Syria, and abandoning its mostly Kurdish partners in eastern Syria would be a huge mistake.

It is understandable, after decades of foreign conflict, that the United States would be cynical about the potential for future successes. But allowing a State Department representative to broadcast “What do you expect us to do?” encourages regimes such as those in Syria or Myanmar to believe they can do whatever they want. The challenge of the next decade will be working off the hangover of the Iraq intervention and finding a new footing rooted in the values that were so clear in the early 1990s.

Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.

Tags Barack Obama Bashar al-Assad Bill Clinton Donald Trump Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War Foreign policy of the United States Humanitarian intervention International relations John Kerry Middle East Politics of Syria Syrian civil war War War on Terror

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video