The Frankenstein Foreign-Policy Crisis
The last week has been not so much a case of national déjà vu as a Philip K. Dickian time-slip where the past bleeds into the present and transforms it. Syria is potentially the frankenstein of foreign-policy crises, made up of the parts of dead blunders: Vietnam, where we learned that firepower won’t overcome the unquantifiables that make for a quagmire; Iraq, where we learned that intelligence may be faulty or manipulated; Libya, where we learned both the combat possibilities and limitations of no-fly zones; Afghanistan, where a quarter-century ago we armed freedom-fighters who became accomplices in the murder of 3,000 citizens on American soil; Kosovo and Rwanda, where we ignored mass slaughter at the cost of our collective conscience; and Somalia, where we answered the call of conscience to disastrous end. Syria surpasses them all. With a warring population becoming ever more kaleidoscopically sectarian, and an air-defense system as sophisticated as any in the non-Israeli Middle East, it’s an unfolding horror show that morally demands a response from the greatest nation on earth even as we face a void of viable military, political, and diplomatic options. This was true before the looming holocaust that would be wrought by chemical weapons. As the president of the United States noted yesterday in his press conference, Syria was a cataclysm of mind-boggling dimensions before the conversation ever turned to red lines.
The disposition of ideology is to conflate matters in a way that serves ideological purposes. Both right and left have done this with the Afghan and Iraq wars; the former became for the right an excuse to invade the latter, while the latter became for the left a way to discredit the former. Actually, each war was girded or undone by its own realities, which in the case of Afghanistan justified our entry given the Taliban’s complicity in 9/11, and which disqualified our involvement in Iraq given the utter lack of connection of Saddam Hussein to 9/11 or al-Qaeda, and also the failure of inspectors just two months before our March 2003 invasion to find the weapons that allegedly were harbored by Saddam and posed such a threat. The same spokespeople on the right that championed the Iraq debacle so fervently, steamrolling as flatly unpatriotic the concerns that were raised before the war began, now conclude that the failures of Syria will encourage Iranian and North Korean follies; while decrying our supposed appeasement of Islamic extremism everywhere else—including in our own country, where such extremism is virtually nonexistent (Boston notwithstanding)—the right ignores the fact that many of the Syrian rebels it wants to arm actually are Islamic extremists. In the meantime, the left responds to the spectacularly cruel imagery emerging from Bashar al-Assad’s barbarism with more frantic calls for a wholly diplomatic solution that might somehow take into account both Assad’s war crimes and the intransigent support (so far) of his principal ally, Russia. This is the sort of soft-headedness that gave liberalism a bad name back around the rise of Ronald Reagan.
By all reports, the current president is an analytical man. It doesn’t take much analysis to note that at last week’s opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Iraq War—the single worst American foreign-policy mistake of any of our lifetimes (mine includes Vietnam)—went entirely unmentioned: the Decision That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Shortsighted as it may seem in retrospect, an imagination that’s both contextual and empathic might comprehend how, half a century ago, reasonable men sincerely thought the fall of Southeast Asia to communism was perilous to American security, whereas no effort at revisionism, no matter how fervently pressed by the Bush Administration’s denizens, can make right the bad faith of Iraq. If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, those who learn its lessons too literally are doomed to misunderstand them, and particularly at the Syrian precipice we might now be well served by, if nothing else, a discussion that has some integrity and doesn’t render as pawns of our partisan discourse a couple million refugees crossing the borders into Turkey and Lebanon, not to mention many more millions slaughtered, including untold children. Barack Obama coolly grasps that it was the Iraq War as much as any single thing that made him president, but he also has not only enough imagination, both contextual and empathic, but plain moral sense to realize that doing nothing in Syria is as outlandish as committing American troops, and that humanitarian action is as imperative as avoiding a plunge into a civil war that has no strategic or ethical clarity. It’s hard to remember a problem this large for which there were so few prospects that were so barely tolerable. The past bleeds into the present and transforms it, but that doesn’t make the present the past, and Syria becomes its own lesson for future Americans to remember even as this week, in this moment, there’s no one to learn it but us.
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