The Hunt For A Hollywood Ending To War In The Middle East


While Australia considers whether to send eight FA-18 Hornets to join bombing raids in Syria, you might think the US would be debating more significant investments.

Not so. Last month General Austin informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that the $500 million Congress had approved to train “moderate” Syrian rebels had trained only four or five people so far.

Now, unless those four or five are the Avengers, I don’t think they’ll be taking out Assad and smashing ISIS anytime soon.

This US-funded “Avengers” revelation was closely followed by Putin announcing Russia was joining the fight on Assad’s side, deploying jets and air defence systems to Syria. A reminder to Americans that rather than being led by the formidable Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), they are stuck with the professorial Barack Obama.

Obama’s alleged failures in Syria are well documented.

Obama chose not to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, and arm Syrian rebels early in the war. He set a “red line” of “enormous consequences” should Assad start using chemical weapons. Then when Assad used chemical weapons, Obama merely confirmed that the red line had been crossed. Not so enormous.

44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. (IMAGE: Marc Nozell, Flickr)

Obama has ruled out putting “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS. The President has sought to contain ISIS through limited air strikes. Any further US action will only be in support of efforts by regional troops. The US strategy for ISIS is “containment”, until a better strategy presents itself.

Supporters praise Obama’s caution, critics derisively call his strategy leading from behind. Everyone agrees ISIS is not on the run, the US cannot “win” against ISIS through air strikes, and they have no plan to remove Assad.

Poll after poll shows Americans disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy, and want a more “muscular” foreign policy. Curiously Americans consistently support Obama’s discrete foreign policy decisions. Americans support less not more involvement in the Syrian civil war, and overwhelming disapprove of sending in ground troops.

The people want leadership and strong action on ISIS, but not action that involves troops or “involvement”.

It’s the foreign policy version of the old “we want better services and less taxes” demand. It raises the question, what is wrong with these voters?

My own suspicion is that in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans prefer a cautious foreign policy, but hate how it feels.

Americans love to feel like heroes abroad. Roaming the world smacking down bad guys since WWII. The 1996 film Independence Day illustrates this nicely. In the finale the President (a former air force pilot) joins an alcoholic veteran in an air strike on the alien ship. After bringing the ship down, the US instructs its allies (the world) on how it’s down. If Lady Liberty were conscious, this is what she would dream.

No hero decides it’s best he and his mob of super pals do nothing because someone might get hurt.

Americans are currently contrasting Obama’s caution unfavorably with Putin’s swagger. If you asked Americans whether committing yourself to prop up a failing regime in the Middle East without an exit strategy is smart, most would say no. Nevertheless, Putin is doing stuff. Sure its evil stuff, but its action. Obama’s retort that Russia will end in a quagmire may be right, still “I cannot stop you, but history will” is lame. Comebacks that might be zingers given time tend to lack punch.

Russian president Vladimir Putin (IMAGE: Screengrab, RT).
Russian president Vladimir Putin (IMAGE: Screengrab, RT).

The Republican candidates appear to have picked up this schism in public opinion. Even among Republican voters, historically more inclined to support military intervention, 37 per cent are opposed to sending American ground troops as opposed to 60 per cent in favor.

The candidates unanimously agree Obama’s foreign policy is a disaster. All agree the USA must be stronger. Marco Rubio wrote an essay on his foreign policy entitled “Restoring America’s Strength”. Rubio’s argument is America had strength. Obama took away the strength. We should be “stronger”, and can be by electing Rubio. Strength in clarity I suppose.

They start to get shaky when asked for alternatives.

Nobody will rule out “boots on the ground”, but none will commit. Rubio and Rand Paul support “Arab troops” on the ground, otherwise known as Obama’s policy. Jeb Bush has a grand plan to take Syria, but it’s not settled. Ben Carson will ask the generals after he gets to the White House. If we want to know his plan, we’ll have to vote for him.

That’s fair enough, as Rodger Shanahan argues on the Drum most of the alternative policies for intervention are fraught with risk. US ground troops could probably take territory off ISIS in Syria, but who would hold it? Who would govern it? What do you then do about Assad? Only a crazy person would commit in advance.

That said, the Republican field has some crazy people: George Pataki (yes, he’s committed to invade, no you don’t need to bother remembering his name), Rick Santorum (wiling to commit to whatever) Donald Trump (send in the troops, secure the oil, use the revenue to pay for US veterans services, win-win), and Lindsey “20,000 ground troops” Graham.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.
Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Graham spent the last Republican debate demanding every other candidate commit to send 20,000 troops to Syria or exit the race. Unsurprisingly, nobody bit. I admired Graham, the only candidate willing to attach a plan to his bellicose rhetoric. He is endearingly principled, and unelectable.

Americans want an interventionist foreign policy, but none of the consequences. They don’t want to keep the peace for weak and corrupt governments. They don’t want Americans to die in someone else’s civil war. They don’t want to spend the money to pay for it. But, we still want to run the world and save the day.

All the awesome, none of the cost. As Trump says, some wins.

In response, Republicans offer us Bush era rhetoric and tough talk. We will defeat ISIS quickly and swiftly. We will avoid another Iraq. How? Can’t tell you.

This is, at this point, exactly the foreign policy Americans want. It’s the Avengers, all style, all awesomeness, and total fantasy.

Mathew Kenneally is a stand up comedian who moonlights as a lawyer. He's a regular new Matilda columnist and is the co-author with Toby Halligan of the satirical blog Diary Leaks. He is also the co-founder of the topical comedy room Political Asylum.