Tuesday, February 26, 2013

fear and folly

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen obviously wants the United States to intervene in Syria. He also seems to believe that President Obama is naive and cowardly to resist such action. In a column today, he quotes from a forthcoming book by an official who worked with Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Vali Nasr:
But the thrust of what he says supports the view that Obama shied from intervening in Syria out of domestic political considerations. A president who was campaigning as the peace candidate — out of Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan, too — could not risk anything bold in Syria. The country fell into the margin of error. “It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations,” Nasr writes.
I'm certainly willing to suppose that political considerations governed U.S. foreign policy in 2012, when Obama rejected the advice of several top officials to give arms to the Syrian opposition. The relentless Republican search for some foreign policy issue to use against the President -- Benghazi? -- would have subjected Syrian action to nitpicking and micromanaging in ways that could have undermined the policy. That policy may be changing, not because of politics but because the Syrian opposition seems to be getting its act together.

But what's wrong with letting public opinion influence foreign policy? Influence, not necessarily determine. The American people want U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to diminish. Obama is accomplishing that. The American people are also dubious of getting involved in another war in a Muslim country, given recent experience.  That's not fear, but wisdom and caution.

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