With Syria, it would be wise to consider the lessons of history
Has anyone really spelled out how difficult it could be achieving the United States’s long-term political goals regarding Syria?
Are they achievable? How about the cost in blood and treasure? I’m not talking about just military activities such as getting arms to the Free Syrian Army or setting up a no-fly zone.
Those are operational efforts that could help oust President Bashar Assad. It’s what comes after that I’m talking about.
Almost two weeks ago, President Obama said, “We need to find a political transition that allows a multi-sect, democratic transition to take place so that Syria can be a place where all people can live in peace and harmony.”
What has the United States learned in 60 years about the long-term unexpected and unintended consequences of trying to establish “a multi-sect, democratic transition” and “peace and harmony” in countries with no such traditions – particularly after using U.S. military force for what seemed the right reasons?
Korea? Pushing back the communist invaders from the North in the 1950s cost 36,000 American lives. Today, U.S. troops remain in South Korea, 28,000 strong. But the Seoul government is democratic.
Vietnam? We lost 58,000 service personnel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then lost the war. Today the United States has relations with the communist government we fought against.
Afghanistan began as a justified, limited military action to wipe out al-Qaida after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It grew through mission creep into rebuilding Afghanistan and its government institutions and remains a work in progress – with 2,200 deaths and 18,460 wounded.
Iraq was different. It was a war of choice, justified under questionable circumstances, and cost 4,400 U.S. dead, with some 32,000 wounded.
With post-war South Korea, the United States found itself reluctantly supporting the tyrannical president of that country, Syngman Rhee, because he was anti-communist and promised to become democratic. Ultimately, the South Koreans forced more democracy into their governmental system.
The United States tried to build up South Vietnam’s security forces and force democratic nation-building on Saigon’s weak, autocratic regime. Both efforts failed because the broader public failed to join in.
Vietnam was a cautionary tale in 1991 for President George H.W. Bush during the Persian Gulf War. The goal was to return Kuwait to its leaders. The military operation was to drive out Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops. Afterward, Bush did not go to Baghdad as some advised, or try to make Kuwait more democratic.
Unfortunately, his approach didn’t influence his son 12 years later. Using overwhelming force, George W. Bush drove Saddam Hussein from power, but he and his closest advisers didn’t understand the internal dynamics and failed to prepare for the post-war insurgency in which the United States became the enemy.
The 1991 Gulf War and, more recently, Libya and Mali, should be models for Syria. Each had U.N. backing, European country and/or neighboring nation military support with U.S. forces – after Kuwait – playing a secondary role.
Too many U.S. armchair strategists are pushing for military intervention without acknowledging its complexity.
Sustaining a no-fly zone is a far different operation than striking a few discreet targets from a short range and returning home, as the Israelis apparently did last week.
Finally, drop the idea that by providing some rebel groups limited military support, the United States, absent its own significant ground force, could have a major role in a post-war Syrian government.
Who really thinks Americans would be the right people to bring together the competing ethnic, religious and secular groups that make up the diverse Syrian populace? Nor could the United States provide the billions to rebuild the country and supervise the formation of a “stable democratic system” that Obama – and probably most of us – would like to see emerge.
(Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post and writes the Fine Print column.)