It seems obvious at this point that 1) The Obama administration is going to drop some bombs on something or someone in Syria, even if no one is yet sure what or whom; and 2) This is something they'd rather not do.
Back when George W. Bush was president, he and his team were practically giddy with excitement over the Iraq War, and much was made of the fact that nearly all the top people whose loins were burning to blow stuff up and send other people's children to fight had themselves worked hard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But the truth is that whether we're talking about a Republican administration filled with eager armchair warriors or a Democrat administration filled with peaceniks, every American president eventually scrambles the jets and orders the bomb bays loaded. And when you step back to look at all our military adventures, every invasion and police action and no-fly zone, you can't help wonder whether we'll ever see a presidency in which we don't project our military force over somebody else's borders. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of State, once said to Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?", and the implicit answer seems to be, none at all.
So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a quick look at some of the places we've invaded, bombed, or otherwise used our military on just in the last half-century, to put this in context:
- 1964 - 1975: Vietnam. You remember that one.
- 1965-1973: Cambodia. We dropped more bombs on the tiny country than had been used in all of World War II.
- 1965: Dominican Republic. President Johnson sent 22,000 troops to prevent communists from taking over.
- 1983: Grenada. In the comically named Operation Urgent Fury, we invaded the tiny island nation to stop the commies.
- 1986: Libya. After two Americans are among those killed in a terrorist bombing of a disco in Germany, President Reagan ordered the bombing of facilities controlled by Muammar Gaddafi.
- 1989: Panama. In Operation Just Cause, we invaded the country and deposed its leader, Manuel Noriega.
- 1991: Kuwait/Iraq. Operation Desert Storm.
- 1992-1995: Somalia. Operation Restore Hope. Didn't end well.
- 1994: Haiti. President Clinton sent 20,000 troops to restore the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
- 1995: Bosnia. US and NATO forces intervene in the civil war with a large bombing campaign.
- 1999: Kosovo. We bomb the Serbians to help the Kosovars.
- 2001: Afghanistan. Still going!
- 2003: Iraq.
- 2011: Libya.
- 2013: Syria
This is a partial list, excluding the dozens of times we've shot down a jet or sent a small number of troops somewhere to help an ally put down a rebellion (here's a much more comprehensive list). It doesn't include the proxy wars we've waged in places like Nicaragua. It doesn't include all the places we're now using drones to pop off the occasional suspected terrorist, like Pakistan and Yemen. And it obviously excludes the lengthy list of places we sent our military in the country's first century and a half.
Some of these operations worked out very well, others didn't. And just to be clear, this history doesn't tell us whether bombing Syria is a good idea or a bad idea. But if you're wondering why people all over the world view the United States as an arrogant bully, reserving for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone it pleases whenever it pleases, well there you go. It doesn't matter whether you think some or even all of those actions were completely justified and morally defensible. From here, we tend to look at each of these engagements in isolation, asking whether there are good reasons to go in and whether we can accomplish important goals for ourselves and others. But when when a new American military campaign begins, people in the rest of the world see it in this broader historical context.
There is, however, one exception to what I said at the beginning about every president, Democrat or Republican, eventually ordering an invasion or two: Jimmy Carter. The failed rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran was basically the only time he sent American troops to another country with their safeties off. And he gave a really nice speech yesterday at the March on Washington anniversary, too.