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Lyons: In defense of restraint 

click to enlarge barack_obama_at_white_house_gun_violence_meeting.jpg

An awful lot of people think about foreign relations the way they think about football. That is, they view the United States as the beloved home team perennially competing for victories in a season that never ends.

Trumpism, you could call it. To hear him talk, you'd think his followers' personal prestige and happiness depended upon Team America being ranked No. 1.

The New York blowhard is far from being alone. Lots of people are yelling, "Let's you and him fight."

Talking to a group of Gold Star mothers recently, President Obama said, "Right now, if I was taking the advice of some of the members of Congress who holler all the time, we'd be in, like, seven wars right now. I'm not exaggerating. I've been counting."

Challenged, a National Security Council spokesman listed seven places where Obama has sent combat forces: Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Anybody who's paying attention could add Iran, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Sarah Palin wants troops sent to Lithuania and Estonia, although NATO just completed war games there. I've lost track of the countries John McCain and Lindsey Graham want to bomb.

So no, Obama wasn't exaggerating.

"Nationalism," Orwell wrote in 1945 "is power-hunger tempered by self-deception." With the smoke still rising from Europe's ruins, he distinguished militant nationalism from patriotism, or love of kin and country.

He saw it as a kind of moral and intellectual disease:

"The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

Few are immune. Even normally sensible Washington thinkers are troubled by Obama's disinclination to kick ass. Washington Post editorial page director Fred Hiatt concedes that "the next president will inherit an America in better shape — better positioned for world leadership — than the nation that George Bush bequeathed to Barack Obama. So why doesn't it feel that way? Why does it feel as if we're losing?"

Brilliant New York Times' columnist Roger Cohen is made deeply uneasy by what he calls the president's Doctrine of Restraint. "Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago" he frets, "has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent."

He concludes that "Obama has sold America short ... . Not every intervention is a slippery slope."

"Syria," Cohen thinks, "is the American sin of omission par excellence, a diabolical complement to the American sin of commission in Iraq — two nations now on the brink of becoming ex-nations."

It's a clever formulation, gracefully expressed. But what should Obama do? Cohen never really says. Is there any reason why Syria and Iraq should remain intact because Britain and France drew lines on a map to divide their spheres of influence 100 years ago?

Should the United States send ground troops to fight there? Against whom? In support of what? There are a lot more than two sides, you know. Spend a half hour pondering the interactive maps and charts ("Untangling the Overlapping Conflicts in the Syrian War") on the New York Times website and then tell me which should be our allies, and which our enemies.

OK, the Kurds. We're already on their side, although our other allies the Turks continue to fight their own Kurdish separatists. Does anybody believe that Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites can live together in peace?

The 2003 U.S. invasion that deposed strongman Saddam Hussein broke the country apart, and the fabled "surge" so beloved of GOP pundits basically created ISIS. "Quit making us kill you, and take this money and these weapons," Gen. David Petraeus essentially told the remnants of Saddam's army. "We'll soon leave you to each other."

As for Syria, University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole explains that he has no dog in the fight: "I despise the al-Assad regime, which is genocidal and has engaged in mass torture. But I absolutely refuse to support any group allied with Ayman al-Zawahiri's al-Qaeda or which envisions Syria as a hardline Salafi emirate where Christians, Alawites, Druze and Kurds (altogether maybe 40 percent of the population) as well as secular Sunni Arabs (another 45 percent) are second class citizens ... . For the fundamentalists to conquer Alawite Latakia or the Druze regions would result in an enormous tragedy."

"Fundamentalists" includes just about all the "moderate rebels" the Russians are bombing. Putin argues that even the Assad government beats no government, and represents the only hope of avoiding genocide.

Is he wrong just because he's Russian and a cynic?

Yes, President Obama's 2011 "red line" was a bad mistake. So were Secretary Clinton's toothless pronouncements that Assad had to go.

But that was then. This is now.

Fareed Zakaria gets it right: "If Russia and Iran win, somehow, against the odds, they get Syria — which is a cauldron, not a prize."

And if the U.S. fights and wins? Same deal.

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