Monday 28 October 2019 4:20 am

Syria is the climax in the long battle over the soul of American foreign policy

In defying the American foreign policy establishment, I once wrote a book that cost me my job.

In 2006, in response to the looming debacle in Iraq, the British thinker Anatol Lieven and I wrote Ethical Realism.

It was a broadside castigating the brain-dead, pro-interventionist intellectual sameness of the US foreign policy establishment, and the disastrous real-world consequences that were likely to follow: the waste of a trillion dollars, Iran dominating the Persian Gulf, the destruction of Iraq, and the fundamental failure of American efforts at nation-building. 

We summed this up by saying: “What has failed in Iraq has been not just the strategy of the administration of George W. Bush, but a whole way of looking at the world.”


But, as the British people will know all too well, failed establishments die hard. 

And, indeed, the toughest thing for me emotionally post-Iraq was to watch so many of the very same dolts who had blithely urged the US into the abyss somehow being promoted at their think tanks, magazines, newspapers, and in the government, rather than ridden out of town on a rail – all the while Anatol and I began new lives on the other side of the ocean. 

Incredibly, it is many of these very same non-useful idiots, having learned absolutely nothing, who are still doing their best to commit the US to an endless stay in Syria, a country of absolutely no strategic significance for the US. 

For beneath all its hellish complexity, Syria is really not about Syria at all. 

Instead, it is the climax of the long twilight struggle between the voices of the interventionist foreign policy establishment in both US parties, who never saw a country they did not want to invade, and those of us who believe that an American-interest-first strategy should lead instead to some sort of consideration as to where and when the US gets involved in military conflicts, as American resources are precious and limited. 

Ironically, it is Donald Trump, for all his myriad faults, who actually understands this seminal failure of the elite (god knows they themselves have no self-reflective abilities at all) and has used it to his political advantage. 

In the 2016 election, Trump called out Republicans over the disaster that was Iraq, sensibly saying the war had been a mistake – a comment which horrified the hawkish party establishment, not used to anyone speaking up about how the emperor was wearing no clothes. 


Trump went further, castigating Hillary Clinton (that ultimate card-carrying member of the interventionist establishment) for egging on the American interventionist failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia. 

For Trump’s Jacksonian base, this was one of many clear signals that the candidate was speaking needed truths to an elite which had lost its way, and that America should stop being the ungrateful world’s policeman. The rest is history.

But Syria has been where the rubber has hit the road, underlining the fight to the death between an interventionist elite (who have hysterically castigated the President for wanting to cut his losses in Syria) and a far more non-interventionist general public, whose children do the actual fighting and dying in these wars of choice. 

The foreign policy blob never lets the facts of endless failures get in the way of their interventionist theories. No area of US public discourse is less representative of what the base of the American people actually desires than the overly-rarefied debate about US foreign policy, where the establishment callously treats the soldiers deployed with little more thought than pieces on a Risk board. 

Typically, the blob sees a global crisis and dangerously decries that “something needs to be done” – meaning of course that the US must spend its own blood and treasure, regardless of how the crisis actually impacts overall American interests. This is a recipe for nothing more than endless failure and eventual decline. 

Trump is the ultimate flawed messenger, but on this particular point he is both right and in tune with the American people. 

In his Jacksonian manner, he has tweeted a very different interventionist baseline: “We will fight where it is to our benefit, and only fight to win.” 

Specifically over Syria, he said: “Let someone else fight over this bloodstained sand.” And on the topic of the greater foreign policy argument, he has rightly stated: “I held off this fight for about three years, but it is time for us to get out of these insidious endless wars.”

Past time, Mr President, but the foreign policy blob – despite its record of perennial failure over the past two decades – will be devilishly hard to dislodge. Time for you to follow through and do your country the greatest of services.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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