The Syrian Debacle and the Opportunity


It is hard to understand how a few missiles and bombs which failed in Korea, Vietnam, and throughout the 20th century, are going to influence the Syrian civil war.

Let us first deal with the debacle and facts:

1.  Chemical weapons have been used with impunity since World War I in contests where one side had chemical weapons capability and the other did not.  The Italians used it in the 1930s against the Ethiopians.  Britain and France and the isolationist US did nothing.  In the 1980s Saddam Hussein used gas on the Iranians and later against his own people.  The US, NATO, and the UN did nothing.  In fact Syria is rumored to have used gas previously in Homs under Assad’s father and the US, NATO, and the UN did nothing.

The only bright line on chemical weapons is that you must have your own stockpile to deter the enemy from using them.

2.  A cruise missile strike cannot prevent Syria’s use of chemical weapons.  Chemical weapons are World War I technology.  You can drop them in a bomb, fire them in a missile, or as was done a hundred years ago fire them out of a howitzer.  We are not going to destroy all the artillery tubes in Syria in a short cruise missile strike.

The Iraqis still had artillery tubes when we rolled into Baghdad.

3.  Bosnia is not a persuasive case study .  It took a Croatian battlefield victory, intensive bombing, a peace deal, US combat forces, and still there is no peace.  There is the absence of war but Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo remain unhealed wounds on the edge of Europe. And that partial result involved inserting a full US division with armor into low grade combat in Bosnia.

You cannot cite Bosnia and targeted, limited, one time cruise missile strikes in the same conversation.

Enough of the debacle, because the opportunity is more interesting.  Congress has the chance to establish two basic principles:

1.  No US military action without Congressional approval outside a real emergency such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11; and

2.  That the US will intervene overseas only in limited circumstances where both its national interests are at stake AND it can be effective.

This second point is often hysterically characterized by Neo-Conservatives (eg. Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard) or Liberal interventionists like Secretary Kerry as “isolationism”.

This is a willful ignorance of history.  Isolationism from the 1930s in today’s world would require the US:

1.  To withdraw from the United Nations, NATO, NAFTA, and most foreign treaties offering any sort of mutual self-defense guarantees or free trade; and

2.  To reduce the armed forces to a size no president could engage in foreign intervention;

What many of us in the middle of the political debate are arguing for is a return to a different historical heritage.  Before President Truman the US intervened militarily to win.  As General MacArthur said:

But once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end.  War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory.

What President Truman did was launch a sixty year experiment in proving General MacArthur wrong.

In Korea we settled for the 38th parallel instead of victory.  In Vietnam we settled for a peace settlement that enabled the collapse of our ally.  In Somalia we settled for retreat.  In Bosnia we settled for the absence of genocide.  In the Middle East we settled for stability.  And we live with the results of Truman’s failure – a world that looks to the US to intervene just enough so the world pays no price while the US takes casualties and retards its economy with defense costs.

The opportunity before the Congress is to roll back Truman’s failed legacy.  It is to once and for all declare that it is immoral to utilize the American armed forces in combat for any purpose other than victory.  That was the WW II ethos that lead to Dresden, Hiroshima, Normandy, Okinawa and all the other dreadful horror required for the unconditional surrender of Italy, Germany, and Japan.  Americans are declaring loud and clear they are not interested in the costs of victory or more bumbling half-measures far from home covered up in excuses, briefing papers, and memoirs.

Let us hope Congress can rise to the occasion.  Who knows, they might even surpass the President’s poll numbers if they do.


  1. John – Cogent argument for redefining the overly-broad latitude the Commander in Chief has acquired in the past 50 years. Interesting that the President invoked FDR last night.

    As you note, Assad’s use of chemical weapons is disgusting but not an exceptional event. Yes, ignoring him could encourage others but we are not ignoring him.

    Which leads me to raise a point about Russia and Syria – something that the US pundits seem to overlook. They speak of Russia and Syria as though they were of one mind. They are not. Putin tolerates Assad basically because the alternative would be a threat to Russian national interests/security.

    Now that Russia has engaged, we should explore ways to meet its needs other than to remain staunchly aligned to Assad. The interests of the US and Russia are more deeply aligned re: terrorism/extremist threat than pundits know or let on. Lumping Putin and Assad together will get in the way of finding a better path forward in Syria.


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