Three Against One

Illustration showing leaders of the Continental Congress, from left to right, John Adams, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, from a drawing by Augustus Tholey, 1894. Interim Archives/Getty Images

Illustration showing leaders of the Continental Congress, from left to right, John Adams, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, from a drawing by Augustus Tholey, 1894. Interim Archives/Getty Images

The American writer and academic Walter Russell Meade once divided American foreign policy into four overlapping schools, which he named after prominent statesmen he believed embodied them: "Hamiltonian" after Alexander Hamilton, "Jacksonian" after Andrew Jackson, "Jeffersonian" after Thomas Jefferson, and "Wilsonian" after Woodrow Wilson. These labels cut across party lines, and each of them sits at a nexus of beliefs about the role of the US government in the lives of its citizens and the proper role of the US in the world.

The debate over American involvement (or lack thereof) in Syria is a remarkable display of some of these schools in action. The Wilsonian school, named for President Woodrow Wilson, who led the US into the First World War, is the one that most emphasizes the belief that America has a moral mission in the world at large, and advocates that the US should “make the world safe for democracy.” As a result, its adherents (though some of them may not identify themselves as such) have been among the loudest voices pressing for American involvement in Syria, either by arming the rebels fighting President Bashar Al-Assad’s government or through direct American involvement, or a combination of both.

Senator John McCain, for instance, though he is conservative on many domestic political issues, often takes foreign policy stances that favor American involvement in conflicts abroad as long as it intervenes on the side of democratic forces and against tyrannical ones. He has been a forceful advocate of American assistance for Syria’s rebels, and recently paid a well-publicized visit to rebel-occupied Syria in a gesture aimed at increasing support for the Free Syrian Army and its allies.

Though a respected veteran of the Vietnam War—as a young US Navy pilot, he was shot down and tortured by the North Vietnamese—on the issue of Syria he finds himself out of step with America’s Jacksonians, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians.

Followers of the latter two strands are more cautious about American involvement abroad, with Hamiltonians more prone to viewing international conflicts purely (and arguably more cold-bloodedly) through the lens of American interests, like the elder George Bush, or through the lens of the costs to American values and democracy at home in the case of Jeffersonians.

Meade named these two strands after two of the most influential of America’s Founding Fathers: Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, and Thomas Jefferson, author of the Bill of Rights, the first secretary of state and and third president. Absent a major and direct threat to American interests, Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians are more likely to shun intervention abroad, and are more at home with the idea that if the US has to play a moral role in world politics it should lead by force of example, not with actual force, and perhaps (for Hamiltonians) promote international trade.

Barack Obama is himself either a Hamiltonian or a Jeffersonian—or, perhaps, it may be more accurate to say that Senator Obama seems to have been a Jeffersonian (he famously voted against war in Iraq), while President Obama has revealed himself to be a foreign policy Hamiltonian. Aside from vaporizing suspected terrorists with drone strikes, he seems to have little appetite for American involvement in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. Costly idealistic efforts to spread democracy to the huddled masses of the world are out; the occasional "surgical" strike at perceived enemies, and at as low a cost to the US as possible, are in.

The final strand, the Jacksonian, is very different from the other two, but also arguably shares a similar outlook when it comes to Syria. All three believe that, as things stand, what happens in Syria is none of America’s business. While Jacksonians (named for the seventh president, Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, a famously belligerent individual) tend to be both populists and nationalists—and so quite willing to use force if it suits American interests—they are less concerned with the moral perfidy of tyrants and the success of struggles for self-determination abroad if there is little directly at stake for the US.

This can be seen in the current polls on attitudes to the fighting in Syria among the American public at large. They have consistently registered large majorities against American intervention, even if the Syrian government has been proven to have used chemical weapons. After the traumas of Iraq and Afghanistan and ongoing economic problems, the American people seem to be becoming a little more Jacksonian in their attitude to foreign affairs.

On the issue of American intervention in Syria, then, it seems that it is a case of three against one.

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