Washington is paralyzed over what to do in Syria. By all accounts, the president's choices range from bad to worse. But Syria is actually a symptom of a deeper intellectual malaise. America's foreign policy establishment is suffering from an adjustment disorder.
After rejecting the neoconservative policies of George W. Bush following his ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the foreign-policy herd rushed to embrace the Obama Doctrine. America would now choose not to wield its military power to influence world conflicts – particularly in the Middle East. In many ways, we chose not to have a foreign policy, choosing instead to focus on domestic considerations in the wake of a debilitating recession.
But that strategy is obviously not risk-free. The Syrian slaughter that the United States has chosen to largely ignore, currently tallied at 110,000, is rapidly reaching the estimated 125,000 civilians killed in the wake of America's Iraq intervention. And the longer the United States has stayed on the sidelines, the stronger al Qaeda has grown, threatening not only Syria, but also its neighbors. The lesson here is that doing nothing can sometimes be just as dangerous as doing too much.
Even the president, who has given many Americans foreign-policy whiplash as he has vacillated on how to respond to that chemical weapons attack, appears to now understand the limits of the Obama Doctrine. Barack Obama spent the last five years decrying American military intervention in the Middle East ("I was elected to end wars, not start them"), and emphasizing the need to reach consensus with our international partners, only to deliver a national address pleading for public support to unilaterally bomb an Arab country that has not attacked the United States.
Obama's problem is that he did too good of a job delegitimizing his newly discovered bellicosity. He has hemmed himself in, which explains why he continued to scrap and revise battle plans and while his senior advisors issue a cacophony of policy directives that have left the American public bitterly divided over plans to prevent mass slaughter. It also explains why he leapt at the chance Russian President Vladimir Putin offered, however slim, to get him out of his jam with a Congress that wasn't likely to grant him the authorization he sought.
No matter what happens now in Syria, Obama appears to understand that he cannot ignore some simple realities that were previously derided as neoconservative issues. Al Qaeda, its affiliate groups, and the violent Islamist ideologies that drive them, are not dead and are not receding. The democracy deficit in the Middle East will continue to spawn instability. Autocrats and strongmen with weapons of mass destruction still pose a grave danger. Iran, an unflinching ally of the Syrian regime, has remained on a belligerent course, despite intermittent attempts at cosmetic change.
In Washington, as conversations with legislators, congressional staffers, civil servants, State Department officials, and other foreign-policy professionals over the last few weeks have made clear, there remains a deep and abiding desire to meet and overcome all of these challenges. Admittedly, many foreign-policy hands feel hamstrung by America's financial burdens. And some feel that the volatility of the region in recent years, accelerated by the Arab Spring, has presented too many difficulties to tackle.
But it is nevertheless clear to a silent but growing group of practitioners that Washington sorely lacks a comfortable framework through which these and other policy challenges can be processed and understood. Few are brave enough to revisit neoconservatism in Obama's Washington, yet it's not hard to recognize that the Obama Doctrine has failed. Washington seeks a centrist approach to these challenges. Washington seeks a neocentrism.
What is neocentrism, exactly? It's just starting to take form. It will embrace America's power, but not abuse it. It might reject aspects of neoconservatism, but not the important moral commitments or valid views of global dangers that gave rise to that movement. It will reject aspects of the Obama Doctrine, but not the need for a somber accounting of the potential costs of putting boots on the ground or getting embroiled in expensive foreign conflicts. And above all, it will reject the growing isolationist wings of both parties, which seek to retreat from the world's problems and renounce American exceptionalism in the process.
The notion of a more centrist foreign policy is not new to Americans, of course. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all conducted their foreign policies in ways that broadly appealed to the American center. But in a town that defers to the president on foreign policy, such a shift may be easier said than done. Real change will likely only come from a coalition of voices from across the political divide.
Whether Washington's foreign-policy elite can come together on this is entirely unclear. But if ever there were a time to step forward, that time would be now.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.