With Syria, consider the lessons of history

 

Has anyone really spelled out how difficult it could be achieving the United States’ 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.”

Way back in October 2011, Elliot Abrams, a conservative who served in senior National Security Council positions under President George W. Bush wrote pretty much the same thing on the Council on Foreign Relations Web site: “The goals of U.S. policy should be to end the violence, bring down the Assad regime, and lay the bases for a stable democratic system with protection for the Alawite, Kurdish, and Christian minorities.”

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. Army 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 in the 1950s reluctantly supporting the tyrannical president of that country, Syngman Rhee, because he was anti-communist and promised to become democratic. U.S. financial support aided Rhee’s security forces and the country’s economic sector. 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 Iraq’s internal dynamics and failed to prepare for the post-war insurgency in which the United States became the enemy.

The Bush administration’s ham-handed attempts at nation-building featured dismantling the Iraqi military and efforts to rebuild it while trying to introduce democratic institutions in a country with no such traditions. The more than $1 trillion effort remains a long-term question mark. One thing seems certain: Iraq is far from the lighthouse of democracy that then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress it would become.

Afghanistan might have been different had the U.S. not all but abandoned the country after driving Osama bin Laden out in December 2001 and ending Taliban rule. Efforts to create a democratic government and build up national Afghan security forces have been hard.

Next year will be the test. The Afghans have set a presidential election in April, when most U.S. and coalition combat troops will have departed.

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, Abrams — and probably most of us — would like to see emerge.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post and writes the Fine Print column.

© 2013, The Washington Post

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • We stand with the kidnapped girls of Nigeria

    As president and founder of the South Florida Girl Up, a club of teenage activists in Florida for the Girl Up Campaign of the United Nations Foundation, I want to add my voice to that of other activists with whom I’ve collaborated to create and support the first clubs in Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia.

  • Preventing a massacre in N. Korea’s gulags

    Since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its report on North Korea in February, U.N. bodies, human-rights organizations, governments and think tanks have been working to respond to the crimes against humanity it documented, including the systematic abuse of prisoners and food policies that lead to starvation. But the report’s most chilling section rarely gets discussed: standing orders at North Korea’s political prison camps (the kwanliso) to kill all prisoners in the event of armed conflict or revolution.

  • Why the House should sue Obama

    The Constitution states that it’s Congress’ job to make the laws and the president’s to faithfully execute them. It does not permit a president to suspend a law or grant special dispensations from its requirements. But President Obama has done just these things on numerous occasions, and only the federal courts can preserve the constitutionally mandated separation of powers by definitively rebuffing his illegal actions.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category