It is important to think about where the foreign affairs debate fits in the current political discussion,David Sangernotedduring a lecture Monday.
Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, specializing in U.S. foreign policy and the debate over cyber warfare. He is also the author of two best-selling books and a two-time member of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist teams.
“I came here to talk to you about Syria and the Obama doctrine not only because Syria is a huge humanitarian crisis but also because it poses such a challenge to us and is typical of the kinds of crises we’ve seen in the past couple years,” Sanger explained.
Throughout the lecture, Sanger repeatedly noted how the lessons of the Obama and even the Bush administration regarding American involvement in foreign conflicts have shaped today’s debate regarding how Americans should respond to conflicts overseas, specifically in the Middle East.
Sanger explained that presidential candidate Donald Trump, though criticized by many, is nevertheless echoing the thoughts that many Americans have about foreign engagement, namely that America has been involved in too many conflicts with too little payoff or success. In a personal interview with Sanger last Friday, Trump lamented that America has been “disrespected, mocked and ripped off” by nations it has tried to help for many years.
The resonance of Trump’s message with many Americans is indicative of a delayed reaction to the bitter lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sanger said.
In both of these foreign involvements, Sanger explained how U.S. military involvement and strategy had little success in creating lasting peace or stability in the two nations.
“My guess is 10 years from now, if you go back to Iraq and look for traces of American intervention, it’s going to be hard to find any,” Sanger said.
Sanger explained that President Barack Obama’s three-pronged approach in the Middle East of white-footprint strategies including drone, special-force and other cyber attacks lost effectiveness during his second term. This was due to the eruption of the Arab Spring, which created an entirely different dynamic in the Middle East, by placing countries in the midst of revolutions often started on Twitter and Facebook but ended by the primitive, violent means of authoritarian regimes.
It was in this climate that Obama had to face the question of whether or not to deploy U.S. troops to Syria.
“When Syria began to unravel, President Obama did not see compelling interest in US entry,” Sanger said. He explained that this stance was likely largely affected by the president’s experiences with the reduced effectiveness of American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sanger concluded by considering the United States’ current stance on foreign involvement. He noted that Americans want to focus on America first. However, when the Russians or Chinese step up to intervene in foreign conflicts instead, the Americans complain that they are losing power.
He explained that Americans are going to have to start thinking differently about what American power looks like in the next decade or quarter of a century if they are unwilling to intervene abroad.
“If you think it’s going to be limited to Syria, I think it’s worth reconsidering that opinion,” Sanger said.
The lecture took place at 4 p.m. on Monday in Robertson Hall and was entitled "Syria and the Obama Doctrine: Would American Intervention Have Avoided Tragedy?" The event was sponsored by the Wilson School.