Even accepting without question the conclusion that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government against civilian targets within that country, I don’t think we should attack Syria. Yes, chemical weapons are inhumane and violate every civilized convention of behavior especially when used against those incapable of protecting themselves, but just what is it that we’re supposed to do about it? Launch a few cruise missiles against military targets, I guess, but to what end? Will destroying a radar site and a command and control installation prevent further use of chemical weapons which are themselves easily dispersed and almost impossible to target directly, especially with the stand-off weapons we would use? Not really.
Given our standing in the Arab world, our attacking the Assad Regime will only enhance its stature in that part of the world. And if you haven’t noticed, Mr. Putin is doing his best to revive the Cold War, probably as a means of suppressing domestic dissent in Russia, but I suspect he would welcome the opportunity to replace and upgrade any Syrian military systems damaged in a U.S. attack, all the while dragging America into another Mideast quagmire. And who is it that would benefit from our attack? In the 1980s, providing arms to Osama bin Laden so he could fight the Soviets in Afghanistan seemed like a good idea in Washington. How did that work out? Who is it that would seize power in Syria if we topple Assad? A future bin Laden? Someone anxious to unleash those chemical weapons on Israel or on U.S. forces in the region? In foreign policy as in life, be careful what you wish for because it might come true.
After 9/11, I fully supported our incursion into Afghanistan. An iconic image of that action, to me, was a photo of a U.S. Special Forces team, bearded and mounted on horses, riding alongside Afghan militia whose objective was to topple the Taliban. Heading into battle in 19th century style, the SF troops brought with them the means to unleash devastating 21st century weapons technology from afar. It was the perfect blend of individual initiative and national knowhow to achieve important strategic ends: namely to kill the man who orchestrated 9/11 and to overthrow the regime that directly assisted him. That conflict was a great U.S. success until we were distracted by the invasion of Iraq. By allowing our attention and our resources to shift from Afghanistan to Iraq, we squandered our great gains in Afghanistan and snatched stalemate out of the jaws of victory.
Iraq, to me, was a disaster on so many levels. I opposed that from the start for several reasons. I would match the bravery and fortitude of the American soldier against anyone, but our real advantage militarily was a technological one as was seen in the early days of Afghanistan. By going into Iraq, we would forfeit that advantage and have to fight on the enemy’s terms (i.e., highly trained, well-equipped American soldiers vs. elusive Iraqis with primitive yet tough-to-defend-against IEDs). That would be acceptable if the mission were important enough; say, if it had been Iraq that had attacked America on 9/11, then yes, pay whatever price necessary to extract justice, but Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and our true reasons for invading that country will be the subject of great debate among historians for decades to come.
While Saddam Hussein was a figure of immense evil, he was more of a threat to Iran than he was to the United States. In that, he actually served our interests in the regional balance of power. As long as Saddam was in charge, neighboring Iran had to keep one eye on him which hindered its ability to become a larger factor on the world stage. But with its only regional counterweight eliminated by the United States, Iran was able to point its aggressive tendencies elsewhere, including outside the Middle East.
But perhaps the greatest damage done to America by that episode was self-inflicted. The great fraud perpetrated on the American people by the Bush administration (“we don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud.”) and it’s co-conspirators in the mainstream media (thanks, Judith Miller and the New York Times) terminally tainted the credibility of future administrations and the mainstream media when it comes to creating a national consensus on critical issues like when do we go to war. And the cowardly concurrence of Congress at that time when legislators who did know better, rationalized their way to “yes” votes in favor of war to avoid a public relations backlash from an administration and media that would use any means to play upon the residual and understandable anger of the American people after 9/11. The deafening silence of that Congress’s successors today on the issue of Syria shows that not much has changed there.
From November 1980 to August 1983, I lived in West Germany as an officer in the United States Army. We fully expected that any Soviet attack would be accompanied by the use of chemical weapons. That’s how the Soviets trained and they would fight the way they trained. But we trained for chemical weapons, too. Not to use them, but to protect ourselves against them. We had great faith in our protective equipment and our ability to use it in a way that allowed us to continue on with our mission. Maybe that experience has caused me to have a little less revulsion about chemical weapons. Does dying from nerve gas leave you any deader than dying from the explosion of a terrorist bomb? Both are horrible and we should strive to eliminate both. But in trying to do that, we should take care not to make a bad situation worse.