What does it mean for a nation to be "tired of war"? Those were the words that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used the in a major statement on Syria a fortnight ago and they were reiterated this week by President Barack Obama.
"Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war," Secretary Kerry said. He added, "Believe me, I am too." These are odd words to use in front of the international media., especially when you know that not only your allies and friends but all your foes -- including your most intransigent ones -- will be watching. What does it signal when the world's sole superpower expresses itself in such terms?
There can be little doubt that the train of thought Secretary Kerry expressed is part of the unfortunate zeitgeist. Everywhere in the West there is a sense that the last decade has been wearying. This may not matter all that much if you happen to be an exhausted Belgian or Swede: terrible for you, no doubt, but unlikely to have any wider consequence. What is concerning is when the only country in the world that really matters begins to feel and express itself in such a way.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius discuss Syria during a news conference in Paris, on September 7, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
Countless historians and analysts of all political inclinations have pointed out that the sole superpower is going through something like the syndrome it went through after the war in Vietnam. There is something in this. But for all the similarities people can point to between post-Vietnam syndrome and post-Iraq/Afghanistan syndrome, the differences cry out to be considered.
Firstly this: that during the war in Vietnam, America lost almost 60,000 of her service personnel. During the decade of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, US troop casualties came to almost a tenth of that figure. What is even more striking is that during the Vietnam war the US army was a conscript army, drawn from across the country, classes and professions, whereas Iraq and Afghanistan were operations carried out solely by a professional, volunteer army.
This is a vast difference. A conscript army by definition affects every community, family and household in a country. Whereas volunteer armies tend to be dominated by people from particular areas, backgrounds and levels of income. So when somebody after the Vietnam conflict said they were "tired of war," they could easily have been speaking with real experience -- as Secretary Kerry, a veteran of the conflict, might have done. Most households were affected in some way.
But when someone today says he is "tired of war," let alone when a whole society says it is 'tired of war," what many -- if not most -- of these people mean is that they are fed of up reading about it every day. Or fed up with all that war stuff clogging up their television schedules.
A study done in the UK several years ago revealed an all-time low in the number of people in Britain who actually know anybody involved in the armed forces. The figure was almost in single digits. In other words, in vast expanses of the country there is nobody who knows anybody in the armed forces. I strongly suspect that the same findings could today be discovered in the U.S. Vast swathes of people, on the coasts and elsewhere, will be able to get through an average year while having no contact whatsoever with anybody actually serving their nation abroad.
Under such conditions there is something profoundly decadent about any such country, or its leadership, saying seriously that they are "tired" of war. Yet these were exactly the terms in which the U.S. sought to address to the nation over the question of involvement in Syria on the eve of this year's anniversary of 9/11: President Obama acknowledged that the nation was "sick and tired of war." He quoted this phrase, and another from someone writing to him who said that the nation was "still recovering from our involvement in Iraq."
Yet it wasn't all downbeat. The President tried to rally the nation by saying that "the burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them." He then stressed that the nation was not, in fact, going to have to bear them. If he were inclined at any point to do something about Syria, it would be something "small," as Secretary Kerry also put it. No boots on the ground. No heavier involvement. Yet somehow not "pinpricks" either.
All of which is unlikely to make Assad tremble. But it hardly matters whether Assad trembles. What matters is what the other players in the region and the wider world make of all this. What matters is what Russia, China, and -- most pertinently -- Iran, will make of it. Iran has managed to keep off the front pages of world attention lately by the happy congruence of two circumstances: the election of a pseudo-moderate president, and the ongoing international dithering about what, if anything, to do about Syria. As it happens, Iran has already dipped its leg into the water of Syria by sending its proxy armies into the country. From their point of view, the reception could hardly have been more pleasing: they have managed to act without consequences.
There are many questions over what to do in Syria, and many questions over what is, or is not, effective to do. That debate should go on. But what should not go on is a period of intense naval-gazing by the Western powers. After all, what better time is there to develop an even more voracious appetite than the very moment when the only people likely to stand up to you are too busily engaged in self-pity to notice your whirring centrifuges?