Last month, Americans did something they haven't done with gusto in a decade: they had a debate about national security policy -- or the lack thereof. Nearly three years into massive unrest in the Middle East, a would-be vote on going to war in Syria provided Congress and the American public with a chance to weigh in.
And weigh in they did -- with an overwhelming message of opposition, which, combined with Russia's easy outmaneuvering of the Obama administration on Syria, led the White House to call off a vote that it was sure to lose.
Importantly, the Syria fiasco exposed the state of collapse in which the politics of national security exist. Americans are uncharacteristically united in that they find the foreign policies of both parties to be revolting.
Achieving such a feat took great time and effort.
While public support for Obama's foreign policy has dropped to 40 percent according to a recent CNN poll, Americans have a general distrust of both political parties that has been a long time coming. A 2011 Pew poll indicated that 58 percent of respondents wanted Washington to be less active in the world, representing a 10 percent increase from when the question was asked in 2004. Unlike 2004, the poll found that even self-identified conservative Republicans agreed with moderates and liberals on this point: unity at long last.
The reason is Americans' perception that neither the left nor the right knows what it is talking about in assessing foreign threats and how to handle them.
On the left, most elite voices in the national security debate have come in recent years from the progressive side of the Democratic Party. This has been true since 2004, when Democrats, through their choice in a presidential nominee, ditched the more moderate foreign policy pursued by Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Reflecting his rhetorical pivot away from "tax and spend" on fiscal issues, Clinton similarly distanced himself from the peace wing of the Democratic Party that had dominated foreign affairs on the left since the 1972 nomination of anti-war icon George McGovern. Dispensing with that faction's tendency to see American actions as the cause of most of the world's ills, Clinton felt at ease wielding U.S. influence confidently in a manner relatively similar to his predecessors.
Clinton also embraced free trade. Rejecting calls to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated by his Republican predecessor, he pushed the pact through Congress, observing: "We are on the verge of a global economic expansion that is sparked by the fact that the United States at this critical moment decided that we would compete, not retreat."
In economic and national policy, the Democrats had come a long way since the 24-year period beginning in 1968 when they lost five out of six presidential elections.
Obama changed this. In a 2011 interview with a reporter from The New Yorker, an unnamed White House source described the path Obama took to the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign in Libya as "leading from behind." Obama never embraced the term, but for many people it perfectly captured the administration's approach.
Since the earliest days of the current Middle East unrest, when the president refused to back secularists seeking to depose the Islamist regime in Iran, to tardy statements of support for a collapsing ruler in Egypt, to unhesitating support for the Islamists thugs who followed in that country, Democratic foreign policy has appeared to most Americans as amateur hour -- and anything but strong leadership. Syria was merely the last straw: a presidential decision to pass the buck to Congress for approval of a meaningless but violent military tactic devoid of any overarching strategy or objective.
However, Beltway Republicans have not done much better.