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Not heeding the lessons of war

Syria may show how little some U.S. political leaders have learned from 10 years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Capitol Hill’s intensified drumbeat last week for U.S. military intervention in Syria’s civil war ignored the long-term implications of what lawmakers were proposing.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Simultaneously, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a key advocate for intervention in Syria, was talking about mistakes made in Iraq.

More about that later.

On Thursday, McCain and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on President Obama to “degrade the Assad regime’s air power and to support Turkey if they are willing to establish a safe zone inside of Syria’s northern border.”

They described as a “credible” option using U.S. Patriot air defense systems based across the border in Turkey to shoot down pro-Assad, Syrian aircraft and Scud missiles.

They added that Gen. James Mattis, the retiring head of Central Command, said during an Armed Services hearing that “precision airstrikes” could knock out “a fair amount” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s aircraft on the ground along with Scud missile batteries. They didn’t mention what would happen if Assad responded by attacking the Patriot missile sites in Turkey or used Syrian air defense systems against the United States or allied aircraft making airstrikes.

The senators also did not indicate how they would establish a haven in Syria but said their plan “would require neither putting U.S. troops on the ground nor acting unilaterally.”

They also omitted Mattis’s hesitancy toward giving arms to the Assad opposition because “the situation is so complex.” He said he would need “some degree of confidence that the weapons that we would . . . [give would] not be going to” our enemies.

While the two senators were proposing their “limited military options,” Reps. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced a more ambitious measure, the Free Syria Act of 2013.

A draft of the bill says Obama “should provide appropriate military assistance, including arms, training, and intelligence support, for Syrian opposition” who are “appropriately vetted and are directed only to forces that support the establishment of a democratic and peaceful Syria.”

The measure also provides for non-lethal military assistance as well as economic assistance to a post-Assad government.

That latter assistance would be available for “(1) Developing or strengthening democratic institutions and processes. (2) Short-term economic and political stabilization. (3) Reconstructing or revitalizing basic infrastructure.”

Funding would be whatever was appropriately needed, with no amounts specified.

Let’s for a moment forget how difficult or costly providing military support to the “good” Syrian opposition would be and concentrate on post-Assad Syria. Also, let’s remember the issues that arose from a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and post-Gaddafi Libya. And, of course, there are the current issues in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Those lessons should be central to any talk about Syria, but they are not.

Interestingly, those lessons were discussed last Tuesday during an Iraq retrospective at the American Enterprise Institute where McCain and retired Gen. Jack Keane, an author of the George W. Bush surge in Iraq, were among the main speakers.

Keane complained the Bush administration in Afghanistan “pulled away from that new government that we put in there very quickly. And we did not help them grow the security forces rapidly enough.”

In Iraq, he said, “We did not reorganize the army. We did not reorganize police. We did not reorganize the bureaucracy that people were used to receiving in terms of services, et cetera. And that began to help fuel the insurgency.”

When it came to Libya, Keane said, “Didn’t we do it again? . . . You know, we deposed Gaddafi, and then we pulled away in a sense that we do not help them — the number one problem in Libya today is the lack of capable and competent security forces to help stabilize the country. . . . That was a major lesson we should have learned out of Iraq, and we have not learned it.”

The dilemma for the United States, which neither Keane nor McCain dealt with directly, is that new Middle East or Central Asian governments, whether they be in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan or post-Assad Syria, do not want large numbers of foreign troops stationed in their countries, even if just for training local security forces. They particularly don’t want U.S. troops.

Keane told the story that when it came time in 2009 to discuss a new status of forces agreement for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after 2011, with the 2010 Iraq elections approaching, “you couldn’t get elected” if you favored keeping the Americans. “Your opponents would tear you apart for it. So what came down was . . . eventually the removal of all [U.S.] forces.”

Today, according to Keane, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “has consolidated power, undermined his political opponents to a certain degree, taken on a huge authoritarian role . . . . And there’s nothing to check that and balance that, and the Iranians are certainly influencing him to do all of that.”

Post-Assad Syria would present at least similar if not tougher political, economic and security problems than Iraq. So shouldn’t those issues be discussed along with calls for more U.S. military involvement?

Shouldn’t U.S. political leaders have learned that as outsiders, particularly as Americans, they cannot control the direction of other countries’ governments? Look at the problems Obama and Congress are having just trying to reach agreement on how to run our own government.

For previous columns, go to

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