Military force should not be a frequent recourse for our leaders. For the first century or so of the republic, it wasn't. Leaving aside the intermittent war against the Indians, wars were few and widely spaced.
Beginning with World War II, though, American presidents grew much more inclined to send our forces to fight in faraway places. The "Vietnam syndrome" supposedly cured that impulse. But it didn't last. Since 1989, University of Chicago scholar John Mearsheimer notes, we have been at war in two out of every three years. We are, in his words, "addicted to war."
Being engaged in combat is the norm. Peace is not really peace -- it's just a term we use for that brief interval between invasions.
Obama has a chance to break that pattern, and in his address, he gave hints he might like to. "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war," he said. "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully."
Hawks regard those as fighting words. The editors of National Review insisted that "it is clear neither that a decade of war is now ending -- not in Iraq or Afghanistan, to say nothing of Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, or Mali -- nor that the final settlements in Iraq or Afghanistan will secure U.S. security interests." Columnist Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal likened Obama to George McGovern and Jimmy Carter.
The idea that Obama would avoid a fight in Syria and Mali probably doesn't alarm the average American, but it shocks the foreign policy establishment -- and not just the Republicans. Shadi Hamid of the liberal Brookings Institution criticized the administration last year for giving foreigners the idea "that Obama is a weak president."
To a lot of critics, restraint is appeasement. Many think the United States has the resources and the responsibility to go to war anytime something unwelcome happens abroad.
Obama takes a different view. He completed the Iraq withdrawal and set a deadline to leave Afghanistan. His only significant intervention -- using air power in Libya -- was brief, limited and low-risk (though constitutionally dubious).