Lessons of Iraq, Vietnam: Now Syria

Photograph by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A U.S. Marine pulls down a picture of Saddam Hussein at a school on April 16, 2003 in Al-Kut, Iraq. A combination team of Marines, Army and Special Forces went to schools and other facilities in Al-Kut looking for weapons caches and unexploded bombs in preparation for removing and neutralizing them.

Updated at 10 and 10:55 am EST

The lessons of Vietnam, it appears, have fused with the lessons of Iraq.

In some ways they are starkly different, and in some ways the same.

And they are merging now, as the U.S. contemplates military action in Syria.

Had the U.S. intervened when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was gassing his nation’s own people with chemical weapons, analysts are suggesting today, the U.S. wouldn’t have been fighting him in Kuwait in 1990 or waging a decade-long war from 2003 to stabilize his ethnically riven nation after toppling its leader.

Had the U.S. understood the cost of an open-ended commitment to an unwinnable conflict in Vietnam with no clear strategies or goals, 58,000 Americans — and perhaps a million Vietnamese — might have lived to see another day.

Had U.S. intelligence about weapons of mass destruction been better-informed, 4,500 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis might have lived as well.

Lawmakers are weighing both lessons today, as they consider the Obama administration’s bid for authorization of military force in Syria, where another dictator apparently has gassed his own people — with the U.S. and French alike calling the evidence unassailable. While the White House starts with the premise of “no boots on the ground,” averting the human toll taken on the U.S. in Vietnam or Iraq, members of Congress are demanding goals and a timeline for retaliation against  the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its alleged chemical weapon assault outside Damascus on Aug. 21.

“It is not Iraq, and it is not Afghanistan,” President Barack Obama said at the White House this morning, making it clear that the decade-long conflicts in both places are not to be replicated in any “proportional” strike of Syria.

“This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences,” Obama said.

He also made it clear that he is open to strategic guidance from the Hill.

“I would not be going to Congress if I wasn’t serious about consultations, and believing that by shaping the authorization to make sure we accomplish the mission we will be more effective,” the president told reporters today. “And so long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad degrading his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future as long as the authorization allows us to do that, I’m confident that we’re going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark.”

Is he confident that Congress will support military action?

“I am,” Obama said.

If the U.S. takes no action against Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Friday, there will be “no end” to the testing of U.S. resolve in the world. If Congress does not endorse Obama’s call to arms in Syria, Sen. John McCain of Arizona said over the long Labor Day weekend, the effect on this president and American presidents to follow will be “catastrophic.” The two are hardened veterans of the Vietnam War — Kerry a Silver- and Bronze Star decorated Naval Swift Boat commander who returned from the war to protest American involvement there, McCain, a Naval bomber pilot who suffered five and a half years in captivity after he was shot down over Hanoi. They could hardly have different war stories, and today they see Syria through the same lens. And Iraq has a lot to do with that.

“Early in 1987, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, decided to clear out scores of Kurdish villages, in order to undermine separatist rebels,” Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of national security affairs and newly seated dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, writes for The New Yorker. “On April 16th of that year, Iraq became the first nation ever to drop gas bombs on its own citizens; the gassing campaign lasted two years and killed thousands of people.”

“Two weeks ago, on August 21st, a poison-gas attack killed more than fourteen hundred civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria’s capital,” Coll writes in an article entitled “Crossing the Line” in the Sept. 9 issue. “That tragic war has rightly raised the standards of proof that Obama must meet to credibly propose military action in the Middle East, particularly if the casus belli concerns unconventional arms.”

“The Reagan Administration’s decision to tolerate Saddam’s depravities proved to be a colossal moral failure and strategic mistake; it encouraged Saddam’s aggression and internal repression, and it allowed Iraq to demonstrate to future dictators the tactical value of chemical warfare,” he writes. “The consequences of similar passivity in Syria now are unknowable.”

In the propaganda war underway now, one given an opening by the president’s declaration of intent to attack Syria while seeking congressional approval that could take two weeks, Assad himself is putting it all together for anyone who will listen to him.

“Assad is deriding America’s past military debacles in Vietnam and Iraq, as he tries to fend off Western intervention in his country’s civil war,” Time magazine reports. “Military intervention, Assad said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia, would bring “failure just like in all the previous wars they waged, starting with Vietnam and up to our days.” Assad reiterated his denial that his forces had used chemical weapons, calling the accusation an “outrage against common sense” and said it was “not us but our enemies who are using chemical weapons.”

The pitfall in heeding the lessons of wars past, of course, if that they are just that.

“Everyone talks about Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s a legitimate concern,” McCain, who has been pressing for U.S. intervention in Syria for some time, said in an interview aired by CNN in May. “I’d also like them to consider that we went into Bosnia and we went to Kosovo and we were able to, without too much difficulty, to be able to stop genocide in those places.”

Today, Kerry will address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the one he first faced as a young Vietnam War veteran and protester and later chaired as a senator from Massachusetts, to make the case for an attack on Syria. He will be joined by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, another Vietnam War veteran who served in the Army infantry and came home with two Purple Hearts.

During his confirmation hearing for his Cabinet post in January, Kerry commented on how the world had changed since the Vietnam War: He appeared in 1971 “during a difficult and divided time for our country. Today I can’t help but recognize that the world itself then was in many ways simpler, divided as it was along bi-polar, Cold War antagonism. Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced.”

Fighting the last war has never proven successful in either international affairs or politics at home — as both Kerry and McCain can attest.

Which leaves the Obama administration, and Congress, with the task of taking Syria on its own terms.

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