Joy-Ann Reid: Iraq colors U.S. choices for Syria

Ten years and a few months ago, I wrote my first column for the Miami Herald, opposing the war in Iraq. At the time, the Bush administration was making a case for attacking the Ba’athist dictator in Baghdad, first because of his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, which eventually morphed into a supposed nuclear threat and, finally, when no evidence of either turned up, a war to free the Iraqi people.

We were, according to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, to be greeted as liberators.

We knew exactly where the weapons were, said then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld: in the area north of Tikrit.

It would be a cakewalk. A glorious war hawk fantasy funded by Iraqi oil and festooned in red, white and blue.

Of course, none of it was true.

Ten years later, Iraq continues to linger, like a low-grade fever, sapping the life out of our foreign policy and haunting every move we make in the Middle East.

After Iraq, we learned that once again, as in Vietnam, our government was willing to lie to us in order to derive a prearranged outcome. In the end, for all the valor of our fighting forces, Iraq served the interests of those who profit from war, but did little to advance either the security of Americans or Iraqis. Meanwhile, we learned to doubt the work of our intelligence community — men and women who work incredibly hard, under immense pressure, and who deserved better than to be dragooned into the eager march toward war by President George W. Bush, Cheney and the neocons.

It seems elementary that so grave a mistake cannot help but yield hefty consequences. But for the current president, who became president in large part due to his opposition to “dumb wars” like Iraq, and the support that position gained him in the Democratic primary in 2008, the current situation is ironic indeed.

As the president and his team make a case to Congress and the American people, for attacking yet another Ba’athist dictator in the Middle East, it’s hard not to simply reject the idea outright. But in Syria, unlike Iraq, the case against Bashar Assad’s government seems solid.

Iraq’s neighbor to the west is well into its third year of civil war — one that has killed more than 100,000 people. United Nations inspections have brought much of the world to the horrific conclusion that Assad unleashed chemical weapons against his own people, including children, in a bid to put down the rebellion against his obnoxious rule.

There is little to recommend the Assad regime, which seems every bit as brutal as Saddam Hussein’s, and quite a bit more lethal.

The reality is that Syria is less like Iraq and more like Kosovo during the 1990s, where the ethnic cleansing of Muslims by the then-government prompted the United States and NATO to act. (Though without a NATO-like international compact, it lacks the grounding in international law.) A military strike in Syria would indeed send the message that genocide won’t be tolerated in a civilized world.

In short, Bashar Assad deserves it.

And yet, after Iraq, it’s difficult to want to intervene. Hard even to believe that America, for all our might, can really change the course of what’s happening in Syria, short of occupying the country and eventually turning its population against us. Iraq is the negative standard by which so many Americans now measure intervention. It has planted seeds of isolationism in people of the left and of the right.

Further, in the wake of the Arab Spring, it’s tempting to assume that the background approach by the United States. is the truly canny way to go, as the people of the Middle East and North Africa seek liberation on their own terms. Not to mention, we have so much to do at home.

America has turned away from global suffering before, in Rwanda and Darfur and Liberia and the Congo, though to do so has always felt terribly wrong, and a small and stingy use of our power. And we have made terrible errors by substituting our will, in Iran during the 1950s, when we overthrew the elected government, and in South America during Henry Kissinger’s dark night of regime change in places like Chile.

We seem to be damned if we do, damned if we do nothing.

Congress seems poised to authorize a limited military strike, with no boots on the ground (assuming the dysfunctional House can get its act together to pass something). I don’t envy them, or the president, their choice.

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