Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Monday, June 18, 2018

To listen to Donald Rumsfeld chastise President Obama over Syria is to listen to a man stunning in his chutzpah and pathological in his arrogance. He has never taken responsibility for the disastrous invasion of Iraq, nor has he ever acknowledged its horrors.

Last week, Rumsfeld told CNN that, while the Iraq war “unquestionably has affected some people’s judgment and attitude and impressions,” the unpopularity of Obama’s proposed Syrian intervention lies squarely at the president’s feet. Obama should have provided “stronger leadership and greater clarity,” according to Rumsfeld.

What gall. The “clarity” that the Bush administration provided as a pretext to depose Saddam Hussein was a deadly mix of hubris, ignorance and falsehoods. It was laced with a detachment that depended on sending other people’s sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers to war. And memories of that folly — potent memories — hang heavily over discussions about military intervention in Syria.

As well they should. Outside the affluent enclaves of the armchair hawks, neo-cons and intellectual interventionists, countless average Americans still live with the lingering aftermath of both Iraq and Afghanistan. When America goes to war … well, America doesn’t go to war. The men and women of the nation’s working classes shoulder the load, bear the burdens and live with the war wounds — physical and psychic.

Obama has promised that his proposed Syrian intervention would not involve “boots on the ground” but would be limited to surgical airstrikes to discourage its murderous tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, from using chemical weapons again. That’s a worthy goal, and I appreciate Obama’s nuanced approach to the Syrian mess.

Unlike his critics, I am heartened by the president’s realism, his restraint, his lack of enthusiasm for another intervention in the Middle East. But that’s not enough to persuade me that this risky intervention in Syria is worthwhile. One of the many lessons from Iraq — and from Afghanistan, for that matter — is how little influence we have over other cultures.

There is precious little the United States can do to persuade Assad, who will do whatever it takes to hold on to power, to stop using chemical weapons. This is an existential battle for him and his family, who have held power in Syria for decades. He and his supporters are willing to kill every person who opposes him — men, women and children — using whatever weapons he has at his disposal. Period.