Is it August 1914 or March 1999?

Where are we now?  Europe, August 1914?  Iraq, March 2003? Afghanistan, August 1998?  Rwanda, April 1994 or Yugoslavia, March 1999?

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.  Photo: Department of State

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Department of State

As we lurch hesitatingly towards some form of military action in Syria, pundits and politicians search for the right historic precedent, trying to  bolster their political case for a response to the accusations that Syria used saran gas against its own citizens.

Let’s leave aside from the start the political maneuvering by certain politicians who all of a sudden are concerned about the unknown and unpredictable consequences of military action, whenever it happens.  These same individuals who so blindly supported the Iraq invasion just ten years ago without credible evidence (despite the volume and confidence of the assertions) are preaching caution now that they have fairly firm evidence of poison gas use by Syria’s President Assad.   They might use Iraq in 2003 as their precedent, but then that might also expose their previous support for invasion.

Others preaching caution point to Europe on the verge of the Great War, when a political assassination of a member of the Austrian royal family in Serbia triggered a chain of events that saw nations line up in treaty-bound coalitions to protect and defend each other.  They rushed with folly into a war they would surely have sought to avoid had they known the death toll, devastation and brutal violence which ensued.   Would such a strike unleash a larger war, in a region so fraught with its own complex web of rivalries and abundance of arms?

You would think in a scenario like either Iraq 2003 or Europe 1914, there would be support for the kind of limited action President Obama is gambling on.  Yet, by showing his hand holding only a limited air strike (not only to domestic political opponents, but also to the Syrians who can now prepare,) Obama opens himself up to the comparison with the Clinton airstrikes following the African Embassy bombings in 1998.  They were loud and may have felt good in seeking a dose of punishment, but they ended up having not just no practical effect, but may have further aggravated the anger directed at the U.S.

So, we hear those whose guiding principal for use of the largest military force in the history of the world is conditioned on the direct attack on U.S. interests.   We don’t want to become the “world’s policeman,” a phrase stemming from Vietnam or Somalia, when in both large and small scale-scale military interventions, questions about our own national interests led to weak withdrawals short of our stated goals.

With unclear U.S. interests, then we may end up watching from the sidelines, as the world allowed an unspeakable genocide to take place in Rwanda.  In such a case, should the discussion of U.S. interests extend beyond U.S. physical or economic security to include a moral responsibility?  Do our long-term interests include demonstrating to peoples, who in this particular region are still struggling to define the outcome of their Arab Spring, that the U.S. will stand on the side of ordinary citizens?  And, if that connection is too fuzzy or moral, can we define our long-term interests in something more practical like long-term security in a region which has held a great share of the global economic and political well-being in its grasp for decades?

The global crises immediately following the world’s paralysis in Rwanda were situated in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Determined not to watch from the sidelines another humanitarian disaster brought on by an earlier incarnation of Assad attacking his own citizens, the U.S. and Europe took months to act, but eventually they did.  Unable to secure UN Security Council approvals because of the same vetoes by Russia and China who refuse to vote now, NATO forces were brought to bear in a punishing air assault to force the soon-to-be convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic to stop the assault on his own non-Serb citizens.

Direct U.S. interests were hard to define in that action.  What makes this precedent the most compelling may be the almost exclusive use of air power to bring about the intended result.  Fighting from the air meant limited casualties on the NATO side, but tragic unintended civilian loss of life.

Precedents, we know, are never exact.  Yugoslavia was not the Middle East; Libya stood farther away from the Lebanon-Israel-Palestine than  Syria.   Unlike 1914, the world has institutions of varying effectiveness to prevent a global escalation of conflict.  And, unlike Iraq, we have greater trust that we are not being lied to.

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