March 21st, 2003, It was late but I was glued to the news- I had to see it with my own eyes in order to believe that my country would be so stupid.
I kept waiting for it to be called off, for someone to come to their senses. No one did and I watched in disbelief as American missiles slammed into Saddam Hussein’s palace complex, filling the air over Baghdad with thick white smoke – the invasion of Iraq had begun. More than 10 years have passed since that night but I still remember it like it was yesterday. And with the news of death and violence continuing to pour in daily from Iraq (this year being one of the deadliest since 2008), it still feels like a nightmare from which I cannot wake up. I could not believe, and still am dumbfounded, that a great nation like the United States of America would let its Administration defy almost the entire world and invade another country on such shaky and suspect pretenses. Just a year and a half after going to war in Afghanistan, where we were struggling to make any sort of headway (and still today over 60,000 US troops remain engaged in that struggle), I didn’t understand how we could even think about acting militarily in another place, let alone actually do it. It was simply beyond belief.
Although I myself value life of any kind above all else, even to the point of having a hard time killing mosquitoes, and am unwavering in my belief that violence tends to only beget more violence, I also know that we live in cruel world. So I am not an isolationist or a pure pacifist, I believe that America, as a superpower, has the moral obligation to intervene militarily to stop ethnic cleansing, genocide, massacres and crimes against humanity. So I was in favor of the interventions in the Balkans in 1999 and would have supported an intervention in Rwanda in 1994 if America hadn’t turned a blind eye. If I had been old enough to really understand it, I probably would have been in favor of the first Gulf War in 1990. But there seemed to be no concrete and imminent threats by Iraq in 2003, and no connection with 9/11 and the war we were already fighting in Afghanistan. So I was 100% against the invasion of Iraq and so were many Americans then, and significantly more in retrospect. And after seeing my country invade Iraq on suspect motives, I was very wary about how and why it was getting involved in oil-rich Libya in 2011. I was relieved to see that it was nothing like Iraq. In Libya, the US conducted a limited number of strikes from select aircraft, ships and submarines, helping to tip the scales towards the rebels, who had the support of the people, before handing over control of the military operation to NATO after just 13 days.
But in Syria it seems that there is no clear path of action that will lead to even a clear outcome, let alone a satisfactory or desirable one. The horrific civil war has already gone on for two and a half years, but the motivations, methods and leadership of the rebels is far from clear and the international community cannot seem to get on the same page about what should or should not done. Meanwhile, even the most modest count puts the number of deaths over 100,000 and chemical weapons have been deployed, killing over 1,400 in the most atrocious of ways. While there is apparently a diplomatic solution brokered by Russia and the United States to the chemical weapons part of the equation, the larger problem remains not to mention the possibility that this diplomatic solution will not be sufficiently complied with.
Given all of this, I am not at all surprised that Obama has not yet acted, instead shifting the decision initially to Congress, and then putting it on hold while the diplomatic disarmament deal is pursued. Indeed, America has absolutely zero desire to get involved in another quagmire far beyond the likes of Vietnam where at least there we understood the contending powers and ideologies. Although perhaps it’s an oversimplification, Iraq failed because we didn’t understand the intricacies of the Sunni-Shiite contentions that would explode in the vacuum left when the tyrannical oppressor Saddam Hussein fell, and because the “coalition of the willing” did not have enough resources and expertise to ensure the security and institution-building needed to produce the dividends of democracy and peace. The resources were lacking because the American people were not fully behind it and the world was largely against it. While more of the international community is pro-Syria intervention, it is not much more, especially when considering which countries are willing to actually take action themselves.
While there is a perception widespread in the Middle East, which seems to me to essentially say that America can’t wait to get its greedy infidel hands on Syria too, this couldn’t be farther from the American mindset. Americans do not, under any circumstances, want to get dragged into another Middle Eastern conflict that most barely know, understand or care at all about. They are also still traumatized about not only being misled about the reasons for invading Iraq, but also about the hard truths about how long it would take to get untangled from it and what it would leave behind. Americans don’t have any interest or patience for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on another un-winnable war when the country is still trying to recover from the economic crisis – more than 46 million people live below the poverty line and 8.3 million more jobs are needed to return to a healthy labor market, a number we are on pace to hit only in 2021.
Just because the world watches America’s every move doesn’t mean that America knows or cares about the rest of the world – it mostly doesn’t. Contrary to popular belief around the world, America doesn’t want or like to play the world’s police man, it has problems of its own to attend to. Moreover, it is an individualistic society in which people are very much focused on their own job, family, hobby, etc. to the extent that they barely pay attention to what is happening on the other side of the country, let alone the other side of the world. And American politicians are no different, they care first and foremost about their own career, mandate, re-election, constituencies, legacies, etc. and are not the least interested in risking any of these for what Americans consider a civil war that has nothing to do with them (although they will probably be proven wrong on this with time). And the American government still hasn’t figured out a way out of the budget sequestration crisis, the extension of which is only good until the end of the month – we already have very hard choices to make about existing government programs and crippling debt, which was increased during the Bush years in no small part thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which totaled over 4 trillion dollars.
But there is also a psychological component. There’s a reason why America did not undertake any serious military operation for more than 15 years after Vietnam. The toll that an experience like Vietnam or Iraq pays on the nation’s psyche takes a long time to heal. I believe that this is a critical factor in why American public opinion is primarily opposed to taking action in Syria.
Although I would like nothing more than the end of the suffering of the Syrian people, and I think it is extremely important that a redline be enforced regarding the use of chemical weapons, I honestly don’t know what I want America to do or not do in Syria if the diplomatic solution does not work, and I think most Americans would say the same. I can only surmise that if a limited number of low-risk air attacks, like we did in Libya without ever asking Congressional approval, were possible, then they would have been done already. The fact that this hasn’t yet been done seems to indicate to me that any intervention would ultimately lead to a long, complicated, risky, costly, un-winnable war that most Americans and most of the world doesn’t want. So if the disarmament deal does not bring results and does not lead to a larger diplomatic solution to the civil war, I truly fear that this leaves the Syrian people with not many prospects besides continued suffering, unless the paralysis gripping the United Nations finally comes to an end.
YaLa Young Leaders