Over the last few weeks, I’ve written about some my experiences in Vietnam and Asia. Those experiences colored my view of politics and military action. Vietnam taught me lessons I’ll never forget.
Today our country finds itself on the brink of war again. Do the lessons of Vietnam hold any importance for us now? I think they do.
Gen. Colin Powell learned those lessons and laid out what is known as the Powell Doctrine.
Essentially, he states that before the United States undertakes military action we should be clear that among other things: 1). Vital U.S. interests are threatened, 2). We have realistic, attainable objectives, 3). There is a viable exit strategy to avoid entanglement, 4). The American people support the action and 5). There is broad international support for our action as well.
When these criteria are not met, our actions will likely end badly, whether in Vietnam or as in Lebanon where, “We inserted those proud warriors into the middle of a five-faction civil war complete with terrorists, hostage-takers and a dozen spies in every camp, and said, “Gentlemen, be a buffer.” The results were 241 Marines and Navy personnel dead and a U.S. withdrawal from the troubled area.”
Sound familiar? I think that it does. A short history of the Syrian crisis is in order.
The so-called “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia as a largely secular uprising against entrenched rulers and quickly spread across the Arab world. In Syria, protests against the harsh rule of Bashar Assad (an ally of Iran and arms supplier to the terrorist group Hezbollah) broke out in March 2011.
In August 2011, President Obama declared, “Assad must go.” Yet, the United States did next to nothing to support the protesters’ cause. Slowly, protests turned to civil war. The composition of the opposition changed too, from secular protesters to al-Qaida linked and trained operatives funded by Islamist extremists from the Arab Gulf.
During a news conference in August 2012, President Obama ad-libbed his now infamous “Red Line” comments about the use of chemical weapons. With no vital U.S. interests at stake, with no set objectives, with no exit strategy, with no support of the American people and with no international support, the president committed the United States to war if certain conditions were met.
In December, chemical weapons were first used. The attacks continued in March of this year and, in April, Assad’s forces again used Sarin gas.
The president did nothing. His red line had become pink and blurred.
Then came the sarin attacks of August and the president threatens action. But not regime change. Apparently Assad no longer “must go.” A senior White House official told the Los Angeles Times that action would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked” and “just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic.”
The White House seems to think that a response to Assad’s crossing the line is more about political perception of the president that it is about vital American interests.
A few days later, Secretary of State John Kerry offers up another ad-libbed gaffe saying, “what we’re talking about doing — unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” As U.S. Sen. John McCain pointed out, “Kerry says Syria strike would be ‘unbelievably small’ — that is unbelievably unhelpful.”
Finally, Kerry issued an offhand comment that military action wouldn’t be necessary if Assad turned over all his chemical weapons within a week. Vladimir Putin jumped on the comment, even though the State Department issues a “clarification.” This forces President Obama during a round of television interviews to acquiesce to Putin’s “suggestion” of U.N. control of Syria’s chemical weapons at some future date.
The bumbling, amateur circus continues. As I write, President Obama has just finished an address to the nation. I fear he has not cleared up any of the confusion. He has not learned the lessons of Vietnam.
Until he clearly articulates how vital U.S. interests are threatened in Syria, how we have attainable objectives that meet our political goals, and how we will avoid endless entanglement, the American people will not support military action in Syria.
Our military men and women now have the support of our citizens. Sending them off to war without a clear explanation, whether limited or something more, will erode that support and bring back the kinds of vituperative attacks I received when I returned home from Vietnam.
We can’t let that happen again. The president and his advisors owe our military clarity and consistency in the mission he is asking them to undertake. Until then, the bodies of innocent victims will continue to pile up, with no end in sight.
Chuck McDougald headed the Veterans Coalition, first for California, then for the Western Region, when Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008. In 2010, he served as Statewide Volunteer Chair for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He is currently the Western Region director for ConcernedVeteransforAmerica.org. He lives in South San Francisco with his wife and two kids.