As America's pendulum swings, Syria suffers: US foreign policy is a story of oscillating between lessons learned from war – but post-Iraq caution is not helping Syria
The "Iraq effect" on US foreign policy seems everywhere evident in Washington's current approach to Syria, from a fear of kicking the sectarian hornets' nest to a lack of diplomatic machismo at the United Nations and a reluctance to act without its sanction.
Meanwhile, a majority of the American public show rare levels of consensus on the failure of old ambitions in the region. As a new YouGov survey shows, only 13% of Americans think "peaceful democracy" is the likely future for Iraq, while 56% say it will remain "a permanently unstable country", including a close 57% of Republicans and 56% of Democrats.
Americans these days are actually looking less activist towards the Middle East than their old British allies. According to the same YouGov analysis, 57% of Brits now support providing non-lethal supplies to the Syrian rebels, as the UK government has recently undertaken, compared with only 45% of Americans. By a similar token, 61% of Brits support enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria so the Syrian Air Force can't attack from the air, compared with 50% of Americans.
It doesn't take an expert to see how the painful lessons of Iraq might have fashioned a more hesitant and less hawkish American approach to the region. But there's also a deeper explanation for the "Iraq effect" beyond events since 2003. US foreign policy has long been guided by a pendulum that swings dramatically between two sets of founding ideals – of historic mission and historic detachment.
Emerging from the second world war, Washington had the "lessons of Munich" on the brain as Harry Truman led them into Korea, with the rhetoric of sweeping mission. This messy conflict helped Dwight D Eisenhower to win the White House with pledges of fewer foreign entanglements, but it wasn't long before John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had reinstated the language of American mission and moved into Vietnam. The Nixon administration came to office with its (admittedly dubious) pledge to bring the troops home early, but really did adopt a less imperial tone elsewhere, most famously in China, only for the Carter and Reagan administrations to peddle competing evangelisms about the universal march of American values.
The hardened Baker-Scowcroft school of US foreign policy promptly muted the preachers as Bush the elder's administration sought to manage Soviet collapse and China's integration into global capitalism. But the incumbent was then lambasted for moral blindness and neglect of American ideals by challenger Bill Clinton. Two terms later, the younger Bush and his team rejected Clinton's global reach as a waste of guns and butter on international social work, from Haiti and Africa to the Balkans, only for Bush to do the most dramatic flip from conservative realism to neo-conservative idealism within his own administration.
America is hardly alone in discerning different shades of patriotism in very different foreign policies. But while every country can struggle with settling its own story, America began life with an imagined community par excellence, where the gap in common heritage was filled by the bonds of colonists who imagined themselves delivered by providence to new beginnings. US foreign policy debate has remained vulnerable to, and periodically overcome by, the lofty refrains of, "American exceptionalism" ever since. Meanwhile, conservative realism has been called America's recurrent hangover cure, as idealists get the country into trouble before realists step in, as some say, to get them out of it, only to be branded heartless and un-American by the next cohort of idealists.
There can be no doubting that the Bush administration's vision of a Middle Eastern brushfire for Jeffersonian democracy emphasised the dangers of missionary hubris. But we should also not forget the inherent value in America's fascination with its own exceptionalism – both to itself and to others. In the same political culture that for long periods can festishise separation from the wider world, this fascination has repeatedly helped US leaders rally public support at crucial moments for the wider world – from Woodrow Wilson's commitment in the first world war to Franklin Roosevelt's notion of an "arsenal of democracy" against the axis powers and Harry Truman's declaration of aid to Europe in 1947.
In the context of Syria, there are few easy options to be found between tolerating bloody stalemate and becoming embroiled in a sectarian, regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But as the American pendulum swings back to realism, some are also warning that the lessons of Iraq are being "over-learned". For the sake of speeding up negotiations on a humanitarian corridor, or the future of Bashar al-Assad or Russian intransigence, could it just be time for one more little drop of American exceptionalism?