A proper understanding of the recent Syria episode in American foreign policy provokes an interesting question: can or does democracy limit national actors so much so that they become ineffectual? Perhaps nervous of how a war weary American public would respond to another Middle Eastern military adventure, Obama kept America out of Syria at a time when the regime was on the retreat and the opposition represented genuine democratic ambitions. Then, not to appear weak to either the international community or hawks at home, Obama declared that a ‘red-line’ would be crossed if Assad used chemical weapons. Indeed, the sole rationale for the red-line was political, that is, to prevent from forming the perception that Obama is soft. However, once that red-line was crossed, Obama, undoubtedly motivated by domestic political concerns balked. What is consistent here? Certainly not Obama’s foreign policy, but instead his desire to have his position line up with what was popular. This forces the thoughtful observer to consider the obvious and troubling question: did political concerns, or in other words, democracy, keep Obama from executing an effective foreign policy?
An overwhelming amount, 62% of Americans believe that the United States should not intervene in Syria. This impacted Congress, which began to look increasingly unlikely to authorize a strike. Obama, already nervous that Congress would rebuke him, only had to look across the ocean at the UK to find an example of his realized fears: Prime Minister Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the Commons rejected military intervention.
This is not a uniquely American problem. What happened in the UK has been alluded to, but also in France, President Hollande has had trouble rallying the French people around a military strike, despite the ultra-successful French intervention in Mali less than two years ago.
Indeed, public opinion has certainly hamstrung leaders. Remember that Obama initially claimed he did not need congressional approval to intervene, perhaps because he was fearful of losing the public debate that would inevitably surround a vote. Keeping the issue out of Congress would contain the debate, at least slightly, and minimize its political fallout. It was only when it became clear that Americans overwhelmingly wanted Obama to go to Congress that he reluctantly admitted he needed to.
It seems safe to say that in this instance, public opinion kept Obama from acting, or at least, would have kept him from doing so. This is dangerous and counter-productive to our foreign policy because it highlights one of our most basic weaknesses: our leaders, acting in good faith, cannot always deliver on their promises. History abounds with examples, e.g. Treaty of Versailles. This makes the word of an American president less dependable, not because he is deceitful, but because, try as he might, he may be unable to advance his agenda through Congress.
But where does this leave us? I am not saying we should leave democracy by the wayside because it makes for a weaker foreign policy. But we must realize that this is often times the case. Understanding this, we can take measures to inoculate our foreign policy, so to speak. By empowering the president to deal with foreign policy, embracing the unitary executive theory, we create an institution – the White House – robust enough to protect our foreign policy from the caprices of the hoi polloi.
On a side note, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not absolving Obama of responsibility for our disastrous foreign policy. It is a leader’s job to bring the people over to his side, to lead them. Also, Obama has never articulated a coherent grand strategy, and I do not think it is fair to pin that failure on democracy, but instead on his (lack of) vision. Ineptitude and naiveté are not results of popular pressures, but rather are exacerbated by them.