The escalation of war in Syria is proving that our political leaders are learning the wrong lessons from examining the past.
During the Cold War, the fight between Russia and the United States was done by proxy. Most notably, Vietnam was an opportunity for the two superpowers to duke it out from a distance, using a surrogate nation to suffer the deadly consequences.
But what ended up as a national trauma that cost more than 50,000 American lives began as an arm’s length transaction, with only military advisors and strategists consulting the soldiers on the battlefield.
Bad idea: Fighting land wars in Asia
President Eisenhower insisted that, after Korea, we would never again engage in a land war in Asia. But when John F. Kennedy took office, he lacked the military wisdom that had guided his predecessor. The escalation in Vietnam was slow but inexorable. Advisors eventually became troops. The rest is a history now carved in stone on a black slab of granite on the National Mall.
When George W. Bush launched the Iraq War, critics were quick to label the conflict as a sequel to Vietnam, but the analogy never truly fit. The process that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was not slow and entirely exorable. Even with all the missteps, American casualties were a fraction of what they were in Southeast Asia. Yet the experience informed then-candidate Donald Trump’s solid promises to never again repeat W.’s mistakes. If Trumpism had a guiding military principle, it was that the decision to intervene in Iraq was a colossal mistake that a President Trump, if elected, would never repeat.
Unfortunately, that singular principle – Iraq War bad – is the only lesson Trump learned from W.’s misadventure. He ignored what Bush actually got right, which is that if you’re going to fight a war, you need to fight it without any half-measures.
Unlike in Vietnam, the Bush administration committed the full might of the military to the war from the outset, and they fought deliberately and with overwhelming force. They didn’t stumble into a quagmire over a period of decades; they dove into the quagmire head-first.
The first post-Cold War proxy contest with Russia
All this is prelude to Syria, which is shaping up to be the first post-Cold War proxy conflict with a post-Soviet Russia. On the campaign trail, Trump all but insisted that Syria would not become another Iraq. A full-scale military conflict was off the table. But then on April 6, Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people. Trump was apparently moved by the images that he saw on television.
That led to a cruise missile attack that was an act of war, even though Trump downplayed its significance. The message seemed to be: “This is just a one-time thing, OK? And can you blame me? Didn’t you see all those dying children on TV?”
The Vietnam approach, not the Iraq approach
But committing an act of war while pretending not to be fighting a war is the Vietnam approach, not the Iraq approach.
One-time things are usually followed by additional one-time things, which is what happened just this past week. America shot down a Syrian plane for the first time. Will we be shooting down additional Syrian planes? More than likely not.
Russia has vowed retaliation. They have said that U.S. planes west of the Euphrates may be shot down. That would turn a proxy war into a direct one, and there will be nothing cold about that.
Remember, it was the sinking of an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin that finally allowed Lyndon Johnson to stop pretending he wasn’t fighting a war. When Russia starts blasting American planes out of the sky, how will Trump pretend that he’s just keeping the peace?
If we’re going to go to war with Syria Constitutionally, Congress needs to get involved. The process needs to be done with full commitment, not half measured. If non-intervention is to remain the Trump policy, than Trump needs to stop intervening. If Vietnam taught us anything, it should be the reality that it’s not convincing when you say you’re staying out of a fight if you keep throwing punches.