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The Dangers of Fighting the Last War

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Sep. 10th, 2013 | 03:40 pm

I remember when I was an idealistic teenager studying world history in high school.  I recall how all of us kept demanding that the teacher tell us how could other countries, including the United States, did nothing to stop Adolph Hitler in the early days of his reign.  He clearly stepped over internationally agreed-upon boundaries:  he invaded weaker countries and he murdered his own civilians. 

We were told that Hitler was weak when he started, but the victors of WW-I and all other nations with the power to stop Hitler turned a blind eye.  Wearing of endless European wars, they appeased the democratically elected German Chancellor. Instead of opposing his aggression and murders, the leaders gave us, as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain phrased it, “Peace for our time.”

Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia the very next day after Chamberlain’s ecstatic pronouncement of peace,  but the world including the United States, was firm in its wishful thinking that Hitler could be placated or contained.

As naïve teenagers, we could not fathom how the whole world could be oblivious to the danger of capitulating to Hitler.  Inaction let him grow in stature and strength with every new concession.  How could have the world, the International Community, the League of Nations have just stood by and let the horrors happen?

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Edmond Burke is supposed to have explained 200 years before Hitler’s evil was allowed to happen.  The inaction of good people, hoping for a better, peaceful outcome permitted Hitler to consolidate power and wreck havoc on the world. 

I learned in high school that sometimes inaction, even well-intentioned, intellectually and morally grounded inaction, can have horrific consequences.

Bombed Out Vehicles in Aleppo, SyriaNow, the United States is debating the wisdom of taking military action against Syria’s President Assad. Although there is almost universal agreement that Assad used chemical weapons to kill 1,400 of his own citizens last month, the arguments against action are sincerely made by good people.


  • We have been engaged in endless war in the Middle East.

  • We were lied to about Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

  • We miscalculated the mood of the Iraqi public and thought we would be greeted as liberators.

  • We cannot be sure that the use of force now against Assad won’t trigger a reprisal against the US or Israel or stepped up terror by Assad against his own people.

  • Any military action we take will result in some civilian deaths.


And, there are the religious/moral/philosophical arguments made by honest pacifists.  They believe you cannot make peace through war – all use of military force is unacceptable.

The arguments against engagement are true and powerful.  If the US acts, innocent people will be hurt. We don’t know if action against Assad will trigger a launch of more horror by him or by Iran or by Russia. 

There is no certain path. 

Unfortunately, there will also be terrible consequences for inaction and more waiting.  I think these awful events are more severe and more likely to occur:

  • Assad, the proximate villain, will feel free to continue to use nerve gas.  If we didn’t react when he gassed to death 10’s of people earlier in 2013 and we don’t react when he killed 1,400 people in August, will we react when he gasses 100,000? A million?

  • Other nations who have been warned by the world (backed up by the United States’ power) to stay clear of chemicals and nuclear weapons will feel free to develop and use them.  Iran and North Korea are on the top of people’s worry list, but a suddenly angry Pakistan or an inventive African dictator are possible candidates, too.

  • Israel and Japan are two major allies who have benefited from the explicit protection of the United States. We’ve said that an attack against these countries will be met with US force.  Will Iran, China, or other potential aggressor nation take seriously the promise of US military backing in the future? At the very least, there will be tests of US backing, and those tests will be unpredictable and will cost lives.


Moreover, with all due respect to my friends demonstrating and shouting for “Peace”, that option is not on the table. Even if the United States does not use its missiles against Assad’s assets, the civil war will continue its bloody, tragic path.  I believe, it will continue with a greater loss of life if America does nothing.

Similarly, there is no option for America to remain unaffected by Syria’s use of chemical weapons.  As isolationist as we may want to be, we live in the same world as Assad and future Assads.  Doing nothing now, will greatly increase the risk that we or our allies will have to take more costly action to defend ourselves against chemical and nuclear attacks.  I wish it were not so, just as England hoped that Hitler would be the concessions made to him.  But, backing away from the use of power when there is compelling evidence that a monster gassed over a thousand of his own citizens is asking for more trouble as well as being immoral.

People opposing action in Syria invoke the mistakes of Iraq as a warning about believing US government intelligence and strategy.  They are fighting the last war.  Syria has no oil, the President has outlined a non-invading purely punishment course of action.

Critics complain that the Administration has not articulated a clear reason for intervention, but that is not true.  The President and Secretary of State John Kerry have provided clear information about why they think America needs to act and what action they want to take. 

Opponents are avoiding the substantive issue and focusing on the President’s style.  They act as if Obama’s treating the public as adults with nuanced, rational argument were somehow a failure in leadership that justifies their inaction.  George W wouldn’t have asked Congress for its approval. 

Harm reduction is the best we can hope for in Syria ... any action – or inaction – is not going to be clean.  Civilians will die.

Absent the Russians or UN or someone pulling a rabbit of their hats, I think the United States must act with force.

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