Does public reluctance in America and Europe to using force in Syria indicate a new isolationism? Does it mean indifference to crimes against humanity? Does it mean an "inward turn," as an article by Judy Dempsey, the New York Times columnist, indicates?
"If Europeans refuse to consider force as a last option to support diplomatic efforts," she writes in The New York Times, "analysts believe that the European Union's foreign policy will be toothless." And Dempsey, whose byline reads "editor in chief of Strategic Europe at Carnegie Europe," is one of those analysts. She might have used a plain "me and the guys around the water cooler believe," but "analysts believe" definitely has more brio.
You read of such worrying about European and American publics all the time these days in the mainstream media, and you can never finish them without an odd taste in your mouth. These analysts and the foreign policy elite in general, especially the American type, are peeved these days. They like their foreign policy toothy. In her article, Dempsey, and she's not the only one, sounds like a kid whose kite has being taken away, or at least reeled in a great deal. Without that wonderful length and the bracing dips and dives, kite-flying just isn't much fun.
We heard pouting of the same tenor when Edward Snowden's revelations first started to come out. They lifted the lovely embroidered curtain of intelligence and espionage, and the elites -- military, security, foreign-policy -- and their fellow-travelling mainstream columnists did not like it. Fareed Zakaria on CNN called Snowden's efforts "a kind of vague nihilistic anarchism."
The Snowden revelations and Dempsey's article -- and again, it is just one of many concerned about "inward turns" -- point out the deeper truth that the gap between elites and publics is growing. For the American elite in particular, the public is now the enemy, a sulky teenager that will not listen to reason and takes drugs as soon as one's back is turned.
Or as the veteran commentator William Pfaff asked in his article " The American Top Secret Kept from Americans ": " What crime is Edward Snowden accused of committing? Not his revelation of American global eavesdropping on foreign governments, which every major government in the world already knew of, or took for granted as existing. Snowden is an international political fugitive because he revealed to the American people what their own government was doing."
And because Americans cannot be convinced to attack peoples with whom they have no bone to pick, they must be shocked into action, whether by 9-11 or horror stories of Iraqi WMD stockpiles or now, by images of gassed children in Syria. And here, I add this aside: When 9-11 Truthers say that the U.S. military-security complex was the prime mover of the attacks, Americans usually dismiss the idea this way: "Our government would never do that to us." But people would do well to reflect on the Truthers theories in relation to the sea of disgust and suspicion that has spread between rulers and ruled in America. If the Snowden revelations mean anything, it is that the former group is far more hard-eyed than the latter has imagined.
And now the American public has been jolted awake. It is quite right to second-guess the judgment of its foreign-policy elite, which has made every call wrongly in the past ten years. It has not left a single situation better than it found it, whether in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Yemen.
I was relieved to see that Dempsey admitted this at the very end of her article: "The instability now in [Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan] has, as the Transatlantic Trends report shows, encouraged skepticism among Europeans and Americans about the use of force."
But Dempsey and those "analysts" take negative opinion polls on the Syrian matter as reluctance to engage internationally. This, I think, is a misreading of the publics on both sides of the Atlantic. They are not more cowardly, just more cautious and more informed.
Why? First, the Internet. The mainstream media's power to shape public opinion on that last bastion of the elite, foreign policy, has been diluted. Back in the 70s and 80s, when I was studying International Relations at the University of Minnesota, the foreign policy debates were basically contained between The New York Times for the liberals (or are we saying "progressives" these days?) and Time Magazine or the Wall Street Journal for the conservatives.
The Internet, of course, has now made this seem like little more than a debate between Pepsi and Coca-cola. Now all of those publications occupy one side of the debate and Internet websites occupy the other. Though websites are of greater and lesser credibility, they make it hard for the mainstream media to slant the news without getting caught.
And hence the second reason. The mainstream media are more and more considered to represent a powerful business and political elite, some of it American, but most of it with dark international loyalties. This has provoked great suspicion. One of the things that struck me immediately about the Occupy Movement was its rhetoric: "talking back to power," "the government's propaganda machine." It was stuff taken straight out of Noam Chomsky , John Pilger , and Chris Hedges . Clearly, leftist voices like these have made inroads; a good part of the public is reading the news more critically.
If there is reluctance over Syria, it's because people have looked at both sides of the question. They've digested more information, more opinions. And the arguments against engagement are articulate and coherent. So people are not convinced.
Analysts and whining columnists regularly adduce Europe's comparatively skimpy spending on defense as evidence of European spinelessness. Nonsense. European governments simply see no reason to stretch already-thin budgets. Why should they? There is no Hitler around these days. There is no communist threat to be turned back, no nationalist madman threatening his neighbors. Al Qaeda? A terrorist group that must be dealt with through espionage, infiltration, and the occasional fly-swatter, but not a cannon.