Generals are always fighting the last war, or so the old adage goes. I would add my own corollary; politicians are always trying to avoid the last war, especially when the last one has gone particularly badly.
I spent a good part of the years 1992 to 1994 covering the famine and U.S. intervention in Somalia. And that ended very, very badly, with a Black Hawk helicopter shot down, an American soldier captured, 18 Americans killed and the body of one soldier dragged through the streets of the war-ravaged capital, Mogadishu. President Clinton ended that intervention with an ignominious American withdrawal that left Somalis to their own civil war, which continues today.
Some months after the Somalia debacle, I was in Africa’s Great Lakes region, watching a horrific genocide unfold, as Rwanda’s Hutu majority embarked on a campaign of mass killing against the Tutsi minority. But for weeks and weeks, as the evidence mounted -- sometimes n the form of headless bodies floating down the river into Tanzania with their hands bound -- the U.S. did nothing at all to try to stop the bloodletting. Later, Clinton administration officials would insist they had no idea what was happening in Rwanda -- which is patently disingenuous, since I presume those officials were at least glancing at my stories on the front page of The Washington Post.
No, the real reason for the U.S. inaction in Rwanda is that the Clintonites had just been burned in Somalia, and there was no appetite, in the administration or among the public, for another military adventure in yet another faraway African country. The attitude then was that Rwanda was just another African tribal war, and the best we could do was stay out of it, with no pressing American interests at stake.
Now fast forward to today’s mess in Syria. And by “mess,” I mean not just the atrocities being committed on the ground, but the hesitancy in the White House, the paralysis in Congress, and the overwhelming hostility of the public toward any new American entanglement in the Middle East.
It reminds me of the 1994 post-Somalia period. We are again watching an atrocity in a country too painfully near the last one where things went badly. And we are again trying to avoid that last war.
In this case, the last war is Iraq. It was an ill-advised adventure sold to the American public based on a series of falsehoods, deceptions and miscalculations. Saddam Hussein’s regime was supposed to have weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, and the intelligence was supposed to be a “slam dunk.” Saddam was somehow connected to the Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We were supposed to be greeted as liberators. The war could be accomplished quickly, and cheaply, with Iraq’s oil revenues covering most of the costs. We could leave behind a stable, democratic, pro-Western government in Iraq.
The Iraq War, in my view, will go down in history as one of the biggest follies in the annals of modern warfare. That tragic misadventure cost some 4,400 American lives, more than a trillion dollars, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and millions displaced.
Most Americans have cast their verdict on the Iraq War; it was a monumental mistake, and not worth the cost. And the Iraq experience is now overshadowing the public perception and official decision-making over Syria, which is just too painfully close to Iraq, in both time and geography. It’s the Somalia-avoidance syndrome all over again.
The images of civilians, including hundreds of children, killed by sarin gas is horrific for anyone to see. But many Americans, burned by the Iraq intelligence falsehoods, are skeptical. How do we know who is responsible? Wasn’t the intel also supposed to be a “slam dunk” with Iraq? How do we avoid a Syria action from turning into another example of “mission creep?” Why should we get involved in another country’s civil war? What’s the difference anyway, between being killed by gas and killed by traditional missiles.
I share many of those concerns. Also, I recently wrote about my hometown of Detroit having to file for bankruptcy, without enough money to keep streetlights on, libraries open and enough police cars on the streets. How can we justify spending billions intervening in a Middle East civil war with no direct American interest at a time when we have essentially said Detroit can go bankrupt without a prayer of any federal bailout or even a loan?
We also hear of Syria’s importance to some of our regional allies, including Turkey and Jordan, which are more directly affected than we are by President Bashir Assad’s use of chemical gas against his own people. If that is the case, shouldn’t Turkey and Jordan and the others be the leading the international charge for intervention?
The public right now is wary and weary after a more than a decade of war. Congress is skeptical. The bitter Iraq War experience has emboldened the anti-war left, and is directly responsible for the rise of the libertarian, non-interventionist right.
There’s another factor feeding the wariness. American is now less dependent than before on Middle Eastern oil. The region is in turmoil as the Arab Spring has evolved into winter. But oil still hovers around $110 per barrel. We now get more oil from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. New technologies in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, promise to further loosen that dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
One irony is that as our oil interests in the Middle East shrink, China is becoming increasingly tethered to the region for its energy needs. But China has consistently adhered to what it calls a “non-interference” policy in the internal affairs of other countries -- a policy that has allowed Beijing to look the other way when alleged atrocities take place, but has also left the Chinese exposed when dictators fall to popular revolts, as happened in Egypt and Libya.
Burned by Iraq, the American public is now demanding that the U.S. step back from its global role as world policeman. Will we go the way of China, adopting a non-interference policy in the face of atrocities? Will the interventionists or the neo-isolationists prevail in the Congress over President Obama’s request for military authorization?
Stay tuned. And let me know what you think about intervening in Syria. The comments section awaits.