CREDIT: US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>
CREDIT: US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, Wikimedia Commons

Finding Our National Moral Compass on Syria

Sep 6, 2013

This article was first published in the Providence Journal (under a different title) on September 6, 2013, and is posted here with the permission of the author.

England said no. And if the polls can be trusted, some 60 percent of Americans say no. No, they do not want their country to become involved in the civil war in Syria. Of course, this is not overly surprising, coming as it does on the heels of two wars which, looked at dispassionately, cost the United States everything and gained it nothing. As Hamlet said, "The ripeness is all." As my mother used to say more simply, "Timing is everything."

And the timing could not be much worse. Both England and the United States are sick and sickened from years of fruitless war, and it is only human nature to cry "enough!" at some point. I am reminded by the current situation of another war in another place some two decades ago. I refer to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (as well as in nearby Serbia and Croatia), which claimed an estimated 300,000 casualties between 1992 and 1995. Until the very last moment, when NATO intervention and U.S. diplomacy (led by the late Richard Holbrook) finally led to the collapse of the Bosnian Serb forces and an end to hostilities, the response of the international community, including the U.S., was one of uncomfortable isolationism, much as it is today. At that time, the root cause of U.S. military and political reluctance was the recent failed mission in Somalia, which cost the country treasure, life, and reputation—much as have Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here, too, it was a question of bad timing. Too bad for the poor Bosnian Muslims, and for the 8,000 men and boys massacred at Srebrenica. America was still licking its wounds, and was not about to be bitten by the dogs of war again so soon. Working at the United Nations at that time, I recall lunching with the German ambassador and asking him why his country—so close to war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina—could stand by and do nothing. To which he replied with remarkable candor: "The people of Germany do not think it is worth a single father or a single son to intervene." I recall, too, being in a meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who was then the UN secretary-general's special representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which he and everyone else at the table agreed that, yes, it is a terrible situation but, after all, there is nothing the U.S. or the West can do. This coming from a very good and decent man, Cyrus Vance. Again, too bad for the poor Bosnian Muslims.

Of course, one of the cruel ironies of that war was the fact that when the U.S. and NATO finally did intervene, the entire Bosnian Serb army capitulated in a matter of days, and its criminal leaders and commanders fled into hiding. But not until after four years of slaughter. Madeleine Albright, the then U.S. ambassador to the UN, famously chided the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, with the question: What is the point of having the most powerful military in the world if you are unwilling to use it?

The question seems as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. The indisputable fact is that the Assad regime has brutally suppressed a significant portion of the Syrian population, and that his forces have used many means, very possibly including chemical weapons, to ruthlessly destroy its opposition. No one, as far as I have heard or read, disputes this. The question, of course, is what if anything should the U.S. do about it. And that takes me not only back to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but to our own Revolutionary War.

Perhaps some have forgotten (or have never been taught) the role that foreign troops and countries played in supporting the American bid for independence from Britain. For instance, I have frequently driven over the Kosciusko Bridge connecting the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, named for Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko, the Polish general who played a major role in the war and who, among other things, contributed to the defeat of the British at the Battle of Saratoga. And France, so often the butt of insipid American jokes today, actually sent an army to fight under Washington's command, and its navy blockaded British ships, preventing them from landing additional troops.

Yes, it is difficult and messy to get involved in wars, especially when they are far away and seemingly have little relevance to our daily lives. But as America debates the pros and cons of U.S. assistance to the people of Syria who are fighting against their own tyrant, we would do well to remember what we owe to the willingness of others to do what was morally right, however inconvenient.

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