How an Insular Beltway Elite Makes Wars of Choice More Likely

The pressure on President Obama to intervene in Syria is hyped -- and the pressure to stay out of the conflict is unjustly ignored.
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Intervention in Syria is extremely, undeniably unpopular.

"Americans strongly oppose U.S. intervention and believe Washington should stay out of the conflict even if reports that Syria's government used deadly chemicals to attack civilians are confirmed," Lesley Wroughton of Reuters reported August 24. "About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria's civil war, while just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act." And if there were proof that Bashar al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons? Even then, just one in four Americans favors intervention.

The citizenry wants us to stay out of this conflict. And there is no legislative majority pushing for intervention. A declaration of war against Syria would almost certainly fail in Congress. Yet the consensus in the press is that President Obama faces tremendous pressure to intervene. In fact, the same Reuters reporter, Lesley Wroughton, co-bylined another piece last week that began:

With his international credibility seen increasingly on the line, President Barack Obama on Thursday faced growing calls at home and abroad for forceful action against the Syrian government over accusations it carried out a massive new deadly chemical weapons attack ...  

If allegations of a large-scale chemical attack are verified -- Syria's government has denied them -- Obama will surely face calls to move more aggressively, possibly even with military force, in retaliation for repeated violations of U.S. "red lines." Obama's failure to confront Assad with the serious consequences he has long threatened would likely reinforce a global perception of a president preoccupied with domestic matters and unwilling to act decisively in the volatile Middle East, a picture already set by his mixed response to the crisis in Egypt.

Where is this pressure coming from? Strangely, that question doesn't even occur to a lot of news organizations. Take this CBS story. The very first sentence says, "The Obama administration faced new pressure Thursday to take action on Syria." New pressure from whom? The story proceeds as if it doesn't matter. How can readers judge how much weight the pressure should carry? Pressure from hundreds of thousands of citizens in the streets confers a certain degree of legitimacy. So does pressure from a just-passed House bill urging a certain course of action, or even unanimous pressure from all of the experts on a given subject. 

What I'd like is if news accounts on pressure to intervene in Syria made it clear that the "growing calls ... for forceful action" aren't coming from the people, or Congressional majorities, or an expert consensus. The pressure is being applied by a tiny, insular elite that mostly lives in Washington, D.C., and isn't bothered by the idea of committing America to military action that most Americans oppose. Nor are they bothered by the president launching a war of choice without Congressional approval, even though Obama declared as a candidate that such a step would be illegal. Some of them haven't even thought through the implications of the pressure they're applying.

Why is their pro-war pressure legitimized as the prevailing story line, despite the fact that they hold a minority position, even as pressure against intervention -- that is to say, the majority position --  is all but ignored? Consider a variation on the "pressure" story that isn't written, though it would be accurate:

President Obama Faces Mounting Pressure to Stay Out of Syria

With his credibility seen increasingly on the line, President Barack Obama today faced growing calls at home and abroad to stay out of the conflict in Syria, despite the presence of chemical weapons and his former declarations that their use would be a red line.

Various Syria experts warned that intervention could touch off a regional conflict, do more to harm than help Syrian civilians, and draw the United States into a more costly, protracted war than anyone wants. Anti-war group Code Pink used their Facebook page to organize a rally against missile strikes. A subset of conservatives warned that intervening on the side of rebels could empower Islamist extremists. Deficit hawks argued that America can't afford costly military strikes at this time in a conflict with little relation to our national interests, and Obama's 2007 statements about the illegality of a president going to war without Congress absent an immediate threat to American security risks making him look like a hypocrite if he unilaterally intervenes. An inability to get UN approval would also arguably make the conflict illegal under international law. And Obama's Nobel Peace Prize would seem to hem him in further.

A story like that would never be written. The political press unconsciously treats hawkish positions as if they're more serious and legitimate, in part because they've thoughtlessly bought into the frame that experts can control geopolitics. This is a consequence of so many political journalists living inside a Washington subculture that attracts foreign-policy thinkers with an inflated sense of their own ability to understand and shape global events.

The American people are well aware of the shortcomings of those elites, having witnessed their performance in Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, Beirut, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, among other places. It's no accident that so few Americans favor intervention in Syria. They don't know much in particular about the country or its people. They've just learned to be skeptical of wars of choice because the assumptions of the people who launch them are so often wrong. That skepticism ought to be given more weight, especially given how many so-called foreign-policy experts are nothing of the kind. 

I'd never claim to be a foreign-policy expert. But I know enough to scoff when The Weekly Standard grants "expert" status to Karl Rove, and to discount the prognostication skills of everyone who urged American intervention in Iraq without the faintest idea of what would follow. But in D.C., expert status is never taken away for being repeatedly, catastrophically wrong.

"Legitimacy" in these circles is a matter of social standing and institutional affiliations, not knowledge or track record.

Then there are all the stories about how Obama's credibility depends on him striking Syria. Isn't that something? A president's credibility hinging on him doing something just 9 percent of Americans want him to do! It only makes sense if the unwritten thought is, "His credibility among people who matter." D.C. people, who inflate the importance of rhetoric and looking tough. If Obama doesn't intervene in Syria, his credibility among the American people won't suffer at all.

Why does the American press treat credibility among an insular elite as if it matters most?

Washington elites are doing all they can to diminish the people's ability to exert pressure in foreign affairs. The Constitution vested the war power in the legislature so that decisions about war and peace would be debated by elected officials from every community in the country -- people easily reached by their constituents and not personally empowered by war. The legislature isn't nearly as enamored of executive-branch wisdom as executive-branch staffers are. 

But popular and legislative skepticism is a non-factor when the president is empowered to go to war on his own say-so, and the people's perspective is further diluted by a press that excessively emphasizes pressure from D.C. elites, writing as if that's what Obama ought to respond to. The president is on the cusp of launching a war of choice that the people don't want, and yet that isn't treated as problematic or even framed as a countervailing pressure against intervention! The press doesn't suggest that Obama would lose credibility by acting against the people's will, because he won't lose any credibility in "This Town," and opinions within it are unconsciously treated as if they are the ones that really matter, even when the subject is war.

It's true that Washington elites, and a few foreign governments, have exerted increasing pressure on Obama to intervene in Syria. But the press shouldn't report as if, overall, the pressure on Obama to act is overwhelming, and that he'll lose credibility if he doesn't, especially insofar as journalistic attitudes become self-fulfilling prophecies. Were the will of the people given its due, there would be more pressure on Obama to refrain from intervening.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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