Two months ago, I wrote about the battle of Aleppo pitting Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia against a hodgepodge of rebels, from secular to Islamist. Despite the horrific violence, I thought major U.S. involvement unwise: “Only the peoples of the Middle East can create lasting peace for themselves.” The battle’s over. I haven’t changed my mind.
The Syrian bloodbath didn’t occur because President Obama foolishly drew a red line in the blood-soaked sand then backed off when Assad used chemical weapons. (True, he did.) It started well before and increased in ferocity when Russia and Iran tilted the battlefield towards Assad.
Are Americans aghast at the slaughter and destruction in Aleppo? Yes, and rightly so. But using American military power to halt the ghastly actions of appalling political leaders sometimes runs deep risks.
Would Russia and Iran have withdrawn so we could roll over Syria’s military and depose Assad? I doubt it. If they did? We’d have won a short-term victory then been saddled with overseeing the formation of a new government.
Once again, American troops would have to protect a government lacking widespread support. We’d also have to build a trusted Syrian security force while American troops faced insurgency and terrorism from many quarters. We’d suffer casualties. And all with no guaranty of Syrian stability once—whenever that might be—we left.
Some Americans might say, “We have to project American power in the face of inhumanity. Freedom isn’t free.” They can afford that stance. I agree that freedom’s not free, but they don’t pay the price. Ours is a military of courageous volunteers. Many Americans encouraging the nation to throw its weight around have no skin in the game. Their children don’t serve. They never served.
Is America toothless? Hardly. Should we withdraw to Fortress America? No. The U.S. plays a special role in helping keep peace—where strategic considerations are most critical. An evolving geopolitical climate demands that we understand military power’s limits.
Reality is, we’ve never ruled the world. That’s why I was taken aback when the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote that the Pax Americana—the global peace guaranteed by the United States—is over (12-16-16). Pax Americana represents a semi-myth.
Yes, we kept the former Soviet Union from overrunning Western Europe. We prevented China from expanding in Asia, although China never sought to invade other countries; it seeks to co-opt them economically. We helped protect South Korea but at the cost of over 50,000 U.S. lives. North Korea eventually developed nuclear weapons. Vietnam proved a debacle with 58,000 American lives lost. Genocide ravaged Rwanda, Darfur and the Balkans on “our watch.” Our 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t remake the Middle East in our image. It destabilized it. Witness Syria and Libya. (Yemen had been fractured earlier.)
We court disaster when our hubris exposes our troops to the physical and emotional hazards in lands whose cultures we don’t understand and whose people reject us. The folly grows when many of our most enthusiastic proponents of using force talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. American power takes many forms. Military force is one but not always the wisest choice. That’s a hard lesson to learn. We’re best off learning it.
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