In the late 1960s, Britain signaled the end of its long run as a world power by withdrawing from major military bases east of the Suez Canal. Today, as the White House confronts the crisis in Syria, could America be facing its own "east of Suez" moment?
The historical parallels aren't exact. Britain was an empire; the United States isn't -- despite the tendentious polemics of inveterate anti-Americans, from Noam Chomsky to Glenn Greenwald. Britain had already been surpassed by bigger superpowers by the 1960s. That hasn't happened to America and isn't likely to happen in the foreseeable future. But the debate over intervention in Syria has illuminated large and growing cracks in the internationalist consensus that has underpinned U.S. global leadership since World War II.
That consensus has been strained to a breaking point by feral partisanship and by a Republican Party increasingly in thrall to libertarian ideas. As a skeptical Congress awaits a possible vote on President Barack Obama's proposal to use military force against Bashar al-Assad's regime, the big question is whether the United States can still muster the internal cohesion to play a decisive role in world affairs.
In his prime-time address Sept. 10, Obama asked Congress to postpone the vote pending a possible deal with Russia that would transfer Syria's chemical arsenal to international custody. The scheme could spare Obama the embarrassment of being rebuffed by Congress, where sentiment against a U.S. strike has been hardening. But the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's enabler and the U.S. president's tormentor in chief, is the one throwing Obama a political lifeline should give us pause about the deal's merits. To be sure, the deal would be good for Obama, allowing him to boast that his threat to use force compelled Assad to give up his chemical weapons. It might also earn Putin a Nobel Peace Prize. But it won't end the agony of the Syrian people, because it would leave Assad free to go right on killing them with conventional weapons.
If Washington forswears the use of force against Syria, as Putin is demanding, it will have paid a very high price for reinforcing the norm against chemical warfare. The Russian gambit, moreover, may founder on its sheer impracticality: Will Assad, his back to the wall, really give up his most fearsome weapon? And how will U.N. weapons inspectors be able to find and remove all the regime's chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone? Even from a purely logistical standpoint, the Russian proposal may be close to impossible.
As that drama plays out at the United Nations, the battle for the Republican Party's foreign-policy soul continues at home. Since the folly of isolationism was exposed in the 1940s, Republicans have rarely been reticent about projecting American power. On the contrary, they have advertised themselves as the party of military strength and unapologetic nationalism, especially after the Vietnam War provoked a schism within the Democratic Party over U.S. military intervention.
But that was then, when the Soviet bear lurked in the woods. Today's Tea Party Republicans are more concerned about the threat from Big Government. They've allowed the budget sequester to gouge big holes in U.S. defense spending -- cuts that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns "are weakening the United States' ability to respond effectively to a major crisis in the world beyond the war zone in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, the view that the United States should quit wasting money and lives trying to provide collective security, uphold liberal values, or sustain a parasitical international system has migrated from the libertarian fringe to the Republican mainstream.
While the anti-war left mostly avoids the barricades, it's arch-libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) who are leading the charge against Obama's proposed strike on Syria. "War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened," Paul wrote recently in Time. Ethnic cleansing? Genocide? Sarin gas attacks on civilians? Sorry, that's not our problem.
The libertarians' resolute anti-interventionism is of a piece with their demands for radical spending cuts and tax cuts. Both are predicated on the view that Washington needs to be cut down to size in order to prevent it from interfering with private markets, snooping on citizens, and intervening in foreign conflicts that don't concern the United States.