Twelve years ago this Wednesday, we were suddenly and stunningly jolted from our naive notion that the world was a much safer place than we had led ourselves to believe.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took 3,000 lives and impacted millions more by jerking the blinders off our heads. So America saddled up, went to war in the Middle East, and eventually earned some measure of justice by taking down many al-Qaida leaders and sending the Taliban running into the hills.
Yet a dozen years later, the Middle East looks no more stable nor peaceful than it was in 2001. That leads many to wonder what U.S. policy should be in the region. It’s a debate without a clear right or a left, nor easy answers, as the nation considers taking action in yet another turbulent locale, Syria.
The 9/11 attacks directly led to the U.S. military action in Afghanistan. That war has cost 2,200 American lives with success hard to measure, though the No. 2 U.S. commander there, Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, said last week he believes victory still can be won before forces withdraw at the end of 2014.
The terror attacks also indirectly led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq a year later, based on the belief Saddam Hussein’s regime had supported the terrorists and amassed destructive weapons. Our nation committed more than 4,400 lives and billions of dollars in a divisive engagement that many still believe was a mistake. Today, Iraq remains at war with itself, the endless Sunni-Shiite standoff taking more than 4,000 lives in random acts of violence in recent months.
Now civil war in Syria pits Bashar Assad’s government against revolutionaries seeking to add that country to the Arab Spring list of toppled dictators that included Libya’s Gadhafi and Egypt’s Mubarak. His armed forces’ apparent use of chemical weapons in a recent battle has the Obama administration seeking “targeted, limited” airstrikes against some of his military sites.
The two likely outcomes of such an attack by the U.S. both seem undesirable: A weak show of force with little impact or a spark that lights the fuse on another lengthy, open-ended engagement in a Middle Eastern nation with an uncertain objective. That’s particularly a danger if Iran becomes involved, as it has threatened, or if the conflict spreads to neighboring Israel, which we are obligated to defend.
What would a limited strike accomplish against pre-advertised targets? If the aim is to force out Assad, a greater military presence likely would be needed, including ground troops. And if deposed, he would be replaced by ... what? Another extremist, like Egypt’s Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood? Or many more years of civil war and sectarian violence, as seen in Iraq?
If we learned anything from these messy Mideast uprisings it’s that removing one group of bad actors doesn’t lead to peace, stability and democracy — usually just to a different group of equally bad actors who impose their own brand of oppressive rule and political retribution. Good guys in that region are hard to find and to support when regimes change.
However, it appears the administration’s strategy is calculated to be more political than tactical, and would do little to limit Assad’s will or ability to fight. President Barack Obama threatened to get involved if Syria went too far and now feels compelled to back it up with a tepid response, likely lobbing a few $1.5 million Tomahawk missiles. Use of chemical weapons certainly deserves to be condemned, but should that be the sole tipping point in Syria after 2½ years of bloodshed that has cost more than 100,000 lives?
So far, Congress and the war-weary American people don’t seem to be strongly on board with Obama’s plan. Neither is the world; the United Nations is split by its own political rifts, led by obstructionists Russia and China, who have pulled the few remaining teeth from that august body.
That leaves the U.S., Great Britain and a few allies to go it alone as the world’s cops on the beat. Now even the U.K. has begged off, Parliament voting not to authorize force against Assad.
There are two strong reasons for engaging in conflicts abroad: To protect U.S. security or interests or that of our allies. Syria is no friend, and it’s debatable whether Assad is a serious threat to anyone but his own people.
The U.S. took action in Afghanistan in direct response to 9/11. Since then, American involvement in the Mideast seems to be aimed at creating Western-style democracies in areas that have never known such. Nation-building is a dicey business, especially for people accustomed to erratic despots, not the freedoms and rule of law we take for granted.
Obama campaigned long and loudly against involvement in Iraq when he first sought the office, yet he risks falling into the same trap as many of his predecessors by taking action that could pull us into another drawn-out conflict.
A dozen years ago, Americans were dragged into a war not of our choosing, one we felt compelled to fight for our long-term safety. Until the situation in Syria meets that same benchmark, Congress should reject the president’s call for military strikes and the U.S. should find better alternatives for achieving peace in the Mideast.