The sequence of events that finds the United States on the verge of attacking Syria began on April 24, 1980, when an elite contingent of US forces surreptitiously entered Iran on a daring mission. Their purpose was not to spread democracy, advance the cause of human rights, uphold international norms, or achieve regime change. They aimed to achieve something far more modest: to free several dozen Americans being held hostage in Tehran.
Yet almost as soon as it began, Operation Eagle Claw collapsed, ending in ignominious failure. We may wonder in retrospect if the gods were whispering, “Be warned, America. Don’t take this path.”
Back in Washington, policy makers either didn’t get this message or chose to ignore it. Operation Eagle Claw became the first in an almost endless series of US military forays into the Islamic world. From that day to the present, successive administrations have persisted in the expectation that the skillful application of hard power will alleviate the problems roiling the Greater Middle East. An unspoken assumption informs that effort: As a mighty superpower, the United States possesses the wit and capacity to distinguish good from evil, to create order out of disorder, and to convert darkness into light.
The upheaval enveloping so much of the Islamic world today exposes that assumption as a vast illusion. Whatever the forces transforming that world before our eyes, Washington probably can’t decipher them and certainly can’t direct them.
Still, before adding Damascus to the list of places that US forces or American proxies have subjected to assault pursuant to America’s mission in the Greater Middle East, we ought to contemplate some of the moral complications created by our previous efforts. For the truth is that Washington has not only fallen well short of fulfilling its self-assigned mission, it has soiled itself along the way.
Here are three pertinent examples, each relevant to the Obama administration’s effort to build a case against Syria.
Our friend Saddam. During the 1980s, the United States aligned itself with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had launched an unprovoked war of aggression against Iran. Fearful that Iran might prevail in that war, the Reagan administration intervened indirectly on Saddam’s behalf, providing him with commercial credits, “dual use” technologies, and, most importantly, intelligence. That intelligence proved invaluable in enabling Saddam to target Iranian forces with chemical agents, including the sarin gas allegedly employed by the Syrians against their own people. Saddam too used sarin gas against his own people, most notoriously at Halabja in 1988, killing many hundreds of women and children. At the time, no one in the United States government argued for the need to punish Saddam for violating the “norm” prohibiting the use of such weapons. Expedience dictated that Washington should look the other way.
Our friends the KLA. Present-day promoters of an attack against Syria cite NATO’s 1999 air campaign against Serbia as a model of what they have in mind. Yet the all-but-forgotten Operation Allied Force was not neat and not without unintended consequences. Begun with the expectation that a mere three or four days of bombing would suffice to bring Slobodan Milosevic to heel, the campaign ended up requiring 78 days of ever-intensifying assault. Before it was over, NATO forces had subjected downtown Belgrade to sustained bombing that killed an estimated 500 civilians. Milosevic did eventually throw in the towel, thereby enabling the Kosovar Liberation Army — a terrorist organization known to engage in narco-trafficking — to prevail.
Our friends the Libyan resistance. In the summer of 2011, concerns that megalomaniacal Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy was hell-bent on committing genocide prompted the United States and its allies to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn. Advertised as an effort to protect civilians, the air campaign soon morphed into an effort to eliminate Khadafy — regime change to fertilize the Arab Spring and allow democracy to blossom. The operation did lead to Khadafy’s ouster (and murder). The Tuareg mercenaries hired to protect the dictator headed home to Mali, which they proceeded to dismember by carving an Islamist republic out of the northern half of that country. A civil war ensued. Meanwhile, instead of democracy, Libya got something more akin to chaos. The Independent reported just this week that “governing authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country” with Libyans “increasingly at the mercy of militias which operate outside the law.”
Think an intervention in Syria is going to be simple? Think it will be over in just a couple of days? Think again.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country’’ will be published next week.