After the second chemical attack on his own people by Syria’s Assad, the Trump administration, along with France and England, launched cruise missiles. The stated goal was to cripple Assad’s chemical programs, a valid reason for action.
This targeted attack came after one in 2017 by just the United States. Unfortunately it didn’t deter Assad from doing it again.
Deterring Assad from monstrous acts is a good idea. But what if he doesn’t back down but instead does it again? It would be his fourth use of chemical weapons since the Obama administration. Would President Trump double down? And what is the next step–ground troops?
No more Vietnams
It was a rallying cry of the late 1970s: No more Vietnams! But what do Americans remember of the first Vietnam? It’s worth a look back.
In the 1950s and 60s, the US was grossly ignorant about Vietnam’s long cultural history. Americans put too much faith in their technology. They forgot about the fierce anti-colonialism of the Vietnamese people. After having Chinese, French and Japanese occupiers, Vietnamese people saw Americans as just another foreign invader to be resisted.
Precious few Vietnamese perceived Americans as liberators. Most saw them as colonizers.
Rusty rifles v. attack jets
Americans entered to stop communist North Vietnam from conquering South Vietnam, a weak republic of mostly Buddhists, ruled by a minority of Catholic leaders. Americans had aircraft carriers, supersonic attack jets, high altitude bombers and battleships. The communist Viet Cong had rusty old French rifles.
America’s leaders predicted a short and decisive engagement. They had every advantage. Or so they thought. The Western allies decided that the march of communism must be stopped in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the North continually attacked the South. Then Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson permission to take any action he needed to repel Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.
It was neither short nor decisive. Sixty thousand Americans died after roughly 15 years of fighting. Historians call it a loss for the United States and its allies.
What’s the takeaway?
Not to be pulled gradually into un-winnable wars, without an exit strategy. Syria, similar to Vietnam, is mired in a conflict with deep roots that most Americans do not understand. And it may not be resolvable. Sunnis and Shi’ites have fought for a long time.
Developing a strategy is hard, but it’s necessary. History requires it.
The United States may choose to escalate in Syria. Yet Western military forays into the Arabic Muslim world have never ended well. From the Crusades 10 centuries ago, to the failed Iranian hostage rescue in 1979, to the fourteenth capture of Fallujah in Iraq, this is true.
Middle Eastern deserts have proven to be quicksand.
Ignoring history is so easy
I contend that history imposes requirements on any military action abroad. Here are four common-sense preconditions. Neglecting any will result in another painful chapter for Americans.
- Americans understand the cultural history of the people and region. All conflicts have cultural contexts. A lesson on Sunnis and Shi’ites is a crucial component of any contemplation of military action. Israeli history as well.
- America’s interests are directly threatened. What does Russia want in Syria? How about Iran or the Saudis? Israel must be consulted too. It’s complicated by other countries’ interests.
- The goals of the mission are clearly explained to the citizenry and the troops. Is Mr. Trump trying to topple Assad? Curtail Iranian influence? Bolster the Saudis? Closed-door meetings of “experts” result in failed policies. Let’s look at the possible costs. More names on walls? More military funerals? The costs of war have always been in names, not numbers. Americans must pay these prices only when there is no other choice.
- The goals are clearly measurable. Afghanistan is a poster child for the consequences of neglecting this. Ask 10 soldiers in Afghanistan what they’re doing there, and I predict you’ll get 10 different answers. Killing terrorists is a tactic. It isn’t a political strategy with a measurable outcome.
Confronting a madman
America confronts an obvious madman in many situations. Yet Americans want to do something, anything, to protect the innocent. But foreign policy cannot resemble a blindfolded boxer swinging blindly in the hopes of hitting something.
History matters in our lives every day, in a practical sense. So I hope this piece made you think. If you learned something, please share.