Has a decade of war taught us anything?

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By Nick DAngelo

To tell you the truth, I have not paid all that much attention to the tribulations erupting in Syria. This is not for a lack of interest or a misunderstanding of importance, but rather exhaustion. We are the post-9/11 generation and have watched war escalating around us for the better part of our lives.

After more than a decade of discussions, both political and policy-oriented, over Iraq and Afghanistan, we are tired. But when a good friend of mine, a devoted reader of this column, asked me to write my take on our involvement in Syria, I had to seriously contemplate the meaning of these actions for both our nation and our generation.

On Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, the same day the U.S. federal government shutdown, United Nations weapons inspectors were quietly rolling into Syria in an attempt to dismantle President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to manufacture chemical weapons. According to a report by the U.N. released last Thursday, “Documents handed over yesterday by the Syrian Government look promising, according to team members, but further analysis, particularly of technical diagrams, will be necessary and some more questions remain to be answered.” The goal of the mission remains to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability by Nov. 1. It is a tight timeline, especially for an organization mired in the intricate mess of diplomacy.

What is most interesting to me is the rise and fall of Syria from the national dialogue. In less than a month, it rose to the hottest news story, but was then quickly overridden by the juicier narrative of the government shutdown. When it was at the top of the headlines, I was consistently irked by the politics of it all.

On both sides of the aisle, politicians who had been hawks during Afghanistan and Iraq denounced armed imperialism, while the pacificists of yesterday hardened a line of imminent military actions. So, have we learned anything from a decade of war?

Forbes asked a similar question in early September: What can Iraq teach us about Syria? A geopolitical analyst and former member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board Robert D. Kaplan writes that while every military intervention is “different in a thousand ways,” the same naïveté that plagued George W. Bush in 2002 and 2003 is rearing its ugly figure once again a decade later.

Among the most basic questions remains the long-term outlook. Kaplan notes that one of the largest missteps of the Bush administration was an inability to strategize three, four or five steps ahead of initial actions.

While the Obama administration has called for “limited” military strikes (whatever that means), lessons from Post-WWII American military involvement clearly indicate that escalation is always a possibility, and a likely one. A concern is that, like his predecessor, President Barack Obama and his national security team have yet to articulate a post-Bashar al-Assad Middle East.

Just as Saddam Hussein was valuable for deterring Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad may be equally necessary in the Syrian strategic equation. My hope can only be that the Obama administration has a long-term strategy. Bush certainly did not. In fact, Bush’s process of “nation building” was plagued from the start.

After the initial invasion of Iraq, when the military objective had been achieved, who had jurisdiction over rebuilding? It was not the Pentagon. It was not the State Department. It was a minor detail that was not so minor.

If a decade of war hasn’t taught us anything, has a half-century? By November 1964, Under Secretary of State George Ball, a respected diplomat, recognized that Vietnam was not going as planned. “Once on the tiger’s back,” Ball wrote in a memo to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, “We cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.” Ball’s 67-page document outlined the likely progression of events, drawing parallels to Korea: ground forces would be sent, the situation would escalate, the Chinese would retaliate, the public would pressure the Pentagon and McNamara would be forced to utilize nuclear weapons. While not all of Ball’s predictions came true, out-of-control escalation certainly did.

Moreover, McNamara ignored Ball’s warnings, rationalizing that the U.S. military had developed such a finely tuned strategy based on “controlled risks” that little could go wrong. Eventually, that control was inevitably lost. Sound familiar? We are taught to learn from our mistakes. We are told to act rationally. But in war, individuals do not do much of either.

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