As the United States contemplates military action against Syria, it must realize that it can no longer enter into and conduct wars in the way it has done since Korea. Vietnam was not really properly authorized or explained. It was also mismanaged, in that — as General Eisenhower and General MacArthur both warned President Kennedy and President Johnson — it shouldn’t be attempted, but if it were, the supply flow from the North (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) had to be cut. It wasn’t. And MacArthur’s assertion that draftees cannot be asked to risk and give their lives in a cause less than a defined goal clearly in the national interest was demonstrated to be true, both morally and practically.
In Vietnam, the goal was never made clear; nor was the U.S. national interest clear, other than to avoid defeat once the country was engaged. That did not prevent the Democrats who plunged into the war from assuring defeat after President Nixon had disengaged the U.S. and preserved a non-Communist government in Saigon.
There should not have been two invasions of Iraq, though both were justified, militarily successful, and constitutionally impeccable; they were just politically mismanaged afterwards. With Bosnia, President Clinton invented the notion of a war worth killing for but not worth dying for; NATO aircraft flew at 30,000 feet to ensure risk-free bombing to the allies. (This was about the time that Mrs. Clinton fantasized that while little girls were curtsying and giving her flowers at Sarajevo Airport, she was actually under threat of her life from crackling sniper fire.)
George W. Bush had every justification to invade Afghanistan and led a great coalition in doing so, but then, leaving his allies undermanned and with an impossible mission, with, to say the least, insufficient thought and explanation, he decamped to Iraq with a much smaller coalition and leaped head-first into the bottomless morass of nation-building in both countries. President Obama staved off what was shaping up as a complete disaster in Afghanistan, but now the U.S. is reduced to pleading with Pakistan to be less supportive of the anti-Western forces in Afghanistan and pursuing those elements for the privilege of discussing peace with them as we follow a pre-published and tight timetable for withdrawal from the country. It would be better just to leave without the window-dressing of fruitless negotiations where any agreements that are made will be ignored anyway. We went around that track in Vietnam, and in Iraq after the Gulf War.
With the latest twist in Syria, every previous criterion of national-security-policy formulation has been debunked. The entire process, built up over 75 years of generally successful policy planning under twelve previous presidents, six of each party, that led the West to victory in World War II and the Cold War, has just been jettisoned with the narcissistic breeziness this administration has brought to almost everything except disposing of bin Laden. Even I could scarcely believe I was not watching Saturday Night Live or The Gong Show as the president, with Vice President Biden beside him — trying by his studiously grim countenance to contain the self-inflating hot-air balloon he seems to have as a brain — announced that he was sending his plan of a punitive but not really damaging cruise-missile strike on the Assad faction in Syria to the Congress, before having an afternoon of golf.
The national interest has to be defined. It has not been, in this case. What should have been done many years ago was that governments that committed outrages — especially terrorist outrages — against the West, should have been marked down for overthrow when that could be done at moderate cost by assisting local dissidents. There should never have been the shilly-shallying in Libya that there was, that became an effective policy only thanks to the French. (And even the redemption of Libya was largely squandered by the administration’s shameful complicity in the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, compounded by the macabre canard of Secretary Clinton’s Islamophilic television address to the Muslim world.) The Assads have long been in this category, and in the early period of the uprisings, before 100,000 people were killed and 10 percent of the population fled in pitiful conditions, the U.S. and its allies, when it still had some, should have lifted the small finger necessary to dispose of Assad.