Stay out of Syria

The U.S. military is exhausted and doesn't need a new adventure

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The coincidence in time of some people in Washington agitating for America to embark on another Middle East war, in Syria, and of the three court cases last week of Maj. Nidal M. Hassan, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and Pfc. Bradley Manning would be truly ironic if it weren't so awful.

All three trials can be seen as resulting from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, one foolish and cynical from its inception, the other foolishly long, both terrible in their long-term impact on America's armed forces. Furthermore, the state of our military after these two wars, which cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, is such that the basic security of the country is called into question. If it's Maj. Hassan, Sgt. Bales and Pvt. Manning on the ramparts, it's hard to sleep well within the fort.

Each in his own way is a result, and, to a degree, a victim of what our leaders have done to them with these two wars. Sgt. Bales is the most obvious case. In his fourth deployment to either Iraq or Afghanistan, a reportedly good soldier completely lost it and went out into the night and killed in cold blood 16 Afghan villagers, including women and children. Seeking to avoid a sentence of life without parole, he still was unable to tell the court why he did it. The reason obviously has to do with what we as a nation did to him with four deployments to battlefields in two ill-conceived and ill-executed wars in countries that basically mean nothing to the United States.

Maj. Hassan's case is more complicated. For him, whether one thinks he has a screw loose or not, the way he sees it is that America has waged long, brutal and unnecessary wars against two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, whose populations -- like him -- are Muslim by faith. As a Muslim jihadist, as he sees himself, or as a Christian in the "Onward, Christian Soldiers" mode, or as a Northern Irish Protestant or Catholic, a war based on religion can serve easily as a basis for killing. If America hadn't chosen to wage long wars against two Muslim countries, it is possible that Maj. Hassan wouldn't have carried out his deadly attack, which killed 13 at Fort Hood. It isn't fancy that makes some Muslims in the Middle East seek to label American forces as Crusaders.

Pvt. Bradley -- now Chelsea -- Manning is also a different case, although the fact that he had access to classified communications and was not better supervised is in no small part due to the state of America's armed forces after 12 years of being way overtaxed. Mr./Ms. Manning clearly had some problems, which probably meant he shouldn't have had the responsibilities and access that he had. Putting him in such a key position surely reflects just how far down into the barrel personnel officers in the U.S. Army have to go to staff critical positions now.

Even after Mr./Ms. Manning's trial and long detention, one wonders just who was in charge of supervising him while he went through his painful gender identity issues and while he unloaded all those classified messages and handed them over to WikiLeaks. It may be that he did it all by himself and that no one who should have been aware of what he was doing was paying any attention to his activities, but, given the way the military works, that is hard to imagine. So who remains to go on trial, and how far up the line does responsibility go? Americans will have to be careful that their leaders don't try to fob off the punishment of Mr./Ms. Manning as the end of the story. It should be only the beginning.

Now, given the stories of Maj. Hassan, Sgt. Bales and Pvt. Manning as extreme although not unindicative cases of how things stand within our military, how can President Barack Obama or anyone else think of plunging our service members into the hellish war in Syria? Shouldn't America's warrior men and women be given a chance to refit and refresh themselves as a fighting force rather than being launched into the Syrian nightmare?

Who wants that? Some of Washington's warmonger princes, Israel, some of the Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all apparently ready to hold America's coat while it fights their fights for them. America's military-industrial companies, they of the big war profits and fat campaign contributions. Some of the media pundits, catering to their patrons. Perhaps the U.S. Navy, pretty much left out of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and, thus, money and promotions.

Support for war comes also, interestingly enough, from the sometimes reasonable United Kingdom. The enthusiasm of its foreign minister, William Haig, for U.S. and U.K. involvement in Syria may come in part from his government's hope that, if it engages in yet another conflict on the side of the United States, America will back it if it has to act to hold onto Gibralter against Spain or the Falkland Islands against Argentina. Nothing like stacking up credit against contingencies. The Gibralter and Falklands controversies are heating up again.

It's not clear what is in Mr. Obama's mind as he allegedly has concluded that the United States must do something in Syria. The United States will have no U.N. Security Council mandate to act. It is hard even to imagine that NATO will sign on to this adventure. (Some observers cite the Kosovo precedent -- NATO action, without Security Council approval.) Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has twice recommended against intervention.

Congress has not had the opportunity to discuss, much less vote, on intervention in Syria. Does Mr. Obama intend one more time to ignore Congress and the War Powers Act as he did in Libya and Mali?

There does happen to be considerable opposition to intervention in Congress. And what about the American people, who oppose it by 61 percent? It's their money and the blood of their soldiers.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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