by Alex Knepper
What do we lose when we start disengaging from the Middle East? I think we lose a sense of national honor. I think we lose a sense of our moral distinctiveness. I think we lose some of the legitimacy behind our claim that we possess a willingness as Americans to look hard truths in the eye and confront hard choices others want to ignore. I think we will be more likely to allow ourselves to forget about the outside world. I think engagement abroad can also be a healthy reminder of what unites us as Americans — of what we have in common, and what makes us different from the rest of the world: whether we are from Maryland or Montana, we have infinitely more in common with each other than with our enemies abroad. Nowadays we lose sight of that seemingly-obvious fact with relative frequency. I also believe well-coordinated interventions can be an effective way to do a lot of good for a lot of deserving and suffering people, if we check the right boxes — see: Hillary Clinton’s reasonable and limited proposal for a No-Fly Zone in Syria. I think this is a loftier and more ennobling enterprise than just constantly trying to run down the price of everything and fatten our paychecks.
Americans hate foreign policy. They do not pay attention to it unless it seems immediately relevant to their own lives and values. For the overwhelming majority for Americans, the rest of the world is something they see on TV: something an ocean away. And furthermore, in campaigns, this irritant, foreign policy, insists on diverting our attention away from programs and institutions at home that have become totally dysfunctional. When we are dysfunctional at home — witness the price tag attached to college and health care, rent in major cities, and diminished job opportunities — we will be far less likely to be able to rally our people to a grand mission abroad. My colleague Cinzia has a point, in that regard. Someone who is staring down a life-altering medical bill or six-figure student loan debt is a lot less likely to find room in his political consciousness for the spirit of military virtue.
More to the point, America’s big-picture mission in the Middle East no longer makes sense to the average voter — it has become incoherent. Voters last year seemed to have little idea what America was trying to accomplish in Syria in the first place, and many were convinced outright that we had no interest there at all and that the attention we paid to its civil war was misguided or a waste of time. Many simply find the topic overwhelmingly complicated and confusing and do not understand why they cannot be provided with a simple-enough explanation for why we should be involved. A real threat can be explained succinctly and quickly, right? The old canard that we have an obligation to fight evil dictators is no longer convincing, and it is wrong. besides. So what is the point of our intervention? What is the explicit, bottom line goal that the average voter can weigh and measure?
Proponents of intervention since the Iraq War are hopelessly divided and no longer speak with one voice about what we hope to accomplish in the Middle East. I have a lot of very serious disagreements, for instance, with many neoconservatives and liberal hawks alike about the viability, necessity, and logic of Islamic government in the Middle East. I have come to believe that most governments in the Middle East should have an Islamic character. But many, who — for good reason — are suspicious of conservative variants of Islam and think they are all incompatible with liberalism — want to side against the crazy Islamists every time, even if a particular variant of secular authoritarianism is just as bad or even worse than what the religious fanatics are offering. These include many of the followers of Donald Trump. Islamists are obviously a cancer on the planet, and the world would be better off if they all dropped off tomorrow. But the same is true of Assad: he is a despicable, cruel, liberty-hating tyrant, and by no means “our bastard.” What is the long-term strategy and goal against which the results of the proposed short-term intervention in Syria could have been judged? Americans did not know how to answer that question, and that is why they rejected further intervention in the Middle East. Those of us who believe in continued American engagement abroad must come up with better answers, or we will lose the policy battle.