Published Sep. 3, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.
The late Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defence under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — in the days of the Vietnam War — learned a lot about the statecraft of warfare. Among the 11 most important lessons he said he learned was this: be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.
What he meant was that before embarking on a military adventure, a wise leader will take the precaution of consulting his allies. If like-minded nations are not willing to join the war effort, the smart leader will reconsider his course. There may be very good reasons not to proceed.
McNamara’s 11 lessons are set out in The Fog of War, an extended interview with filmmaker Errol Morris, which won the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary feature. Although McNamara was talking about Vietnam, his advice could — and should — have been applied to Iraq (the war began in 2003), and it is certainly relevant to today’s confrontation with Syria.
In McNamara’s view, the United States — never understanding Vietnam’s history or people — made a series of mistakes, beginning with the decision to proceed with precious little international support. Aside from South Vietnam itself, just Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines joined the ill-fated U.S. effort.
In the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. was joined by the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland (with a token force of 194). Such staunch allies as France, Germany, New Zealand and Canada refused to get involved; one of Jean Chrétien’s proudest moments as prime minister came when he said “no” to president George W. Bush’s request that Canada join “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to disarm Saddam Hussein of his alleged store of weapons of mass destruction. The war dragged on for eight years and claimed the lives of 4,500 Americans and many times that number of Iraqis.
Fast forward to the summer of 2013, and we see a disconcertingly similar scenario. In place of Iraq, read Syria; in place of Saddam Hussein, read Bashar Assad (the Syrian president and Middle East villain of the hour); in place of weapons of mass destruction, read chemical weapons; in place of George W. Bush, read Barack Obama.
Obama wants very much to attack the Syrian regime and teach Bashar Assad a lesson through the use of drone aircraft and cruise missiles. No boots on the ground, but isn’t that what they said at the outset in Vietnam?
If McNamara were still alive, he would advise Obama to re-examine his reasoning, by checking out the nations willing to line up behind him. He won’t see many. He may be able to cobble together a coalition with France and Syria’s neighbour, Turkey, but that’s likely to be about all. He cannot get international support through the United Nations Security Council as long as Russia is Syria’s patron and weapons supplier.
Obama looked to the United Kingdom, but when Prime Minister David Cameron put the proposition to Parliament last week, his coalition government lost the vote. There was a sense at Westminster that Britain had been sold a bill of goods 10 years ago — no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq — and it would be unwise to embrace another American adventure. Cameron wisely said he would accept Parliament’s verdict. Back-peddling, Obama now says he will seek the authorization of both houses of Congress before embarking on military intervention in Syria.
McNamara would have approved. The delay will give time for cooler heads to prevail, to seek ways to address Syria and the issue of chemical weapons short of embarking on another Iraq-style war.
After speaking to Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he agreed with the president on the need for a firm response, adding that while his government had no present plans for a military mission, Canada would support its allies who choose to use force. What form that “support” might take, we don’t know. What we do know is that Harper does not intend to consult Parliament.
No surprise there.