When Syria's government launched a major offensive against a rebel-held area near Damascus in late February, there was pressure on the U.S. 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 reluctance 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 U.S. for the 10 years after the Cold War. Movies and TV shows have explored the O.J. Simpson trial, the Waco standoff and the Los Angeles riots. There is even a new Hulu series about the pre-9/11 hunt for al-Qaeda, based on the book "The Looming Tower."
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 places like Syria and Myanmar where there is substantial evidence of atrocities against civilians.
Announcing military action against Iraq in 1991 in response to its invasion of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush declared: "We have a real chance at this new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfil 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 crisis. "American action is often necessary as a catalyst for broader involvement of the community of nations," he said. In 1994, amid some objections regarding U.S. action in Haiti, President Bill Clinton said that U.S. interests must be protected and that America must "stop the brutal atrocities that threaten tens of thousands of Haitians."
Clinton justified intervention in Kosovo in 1999 with claims that the U.S. 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 is often characterized as one of "pre-emption," 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 U.S. would come home as soon as possible and that there was no American interest in a wider conflict.
In many ways, President Barack Obama's decision to reduce the U.S. footprint abroad through the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 was a reaction to the hangover of pre-emption. When Obama announced airstrikes against the Islamic State in August 2014, he said, "The United States cannot and should not intervene every time there's a crisis 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 U.S. could not "turn a blind eye" to the genocidal actions the Islamic State was carrying out against the Yazidi minority.
Leaked comments from Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with Syrian opposition members in September 2016 at the United Nations spelled out U.S. reluctance to do more regarding Assad's actions 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 told 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 asked. "Three years ago, you," the dissident responded.
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 U.S. 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 the Islamic State 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 U.S. remains good at accomplishing small operations; it is not as good at coming up with long-term goals. Kerry told the Syrian dissidents the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. should "declare victory in Syria and come home."
Neither of those assessments is correct. The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 that 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.