Can We Really Do Better In Syria Than We Did in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya?

A lot could go wrong if the U.S. gets involved in Syria's civil war.



Aversion therapy is a process used to deter people from engaging in self-destructive habits by subjecting them to painful sensations whenever they do—say, giving them an electric shock when they light a cigarette or take a drink. The idea is that soon they will learn that these once-pleasurable pastimes are something to avoid.

We have all had years of aversion therapy for our addiction to military intervention. But it's had a strange effect on John McCain: The worse it hurts, the more he wants to keep doing it. The American public may be weary after more than a dozen years of nonstop war, but McCain is eager to wade into a new fight in Syria.

He was there on Memorial Day, having sneaked in to meet rebels fighting the government of Bashar Assad. The trip was obviously intended to put pressure on President Barack Obama, who has so far resisted demands from McCain and other Republicans to help the insurgency with air power and weapons.

Why anything McCain does should influence Obama is a mystery. The endorsement of the Syrian rebels comes from the wise mind that thought Sarah Palin should be one heartbeat away from the nuclear codes. It was no secret in 2008 that McCain would be more apt than Obama to launch random invasions of countries Palin couldn't find on a map. For some reason, the American people opted for Obama.

But the president seems open to the idea that his opponent was right. He reportedly has ordered the Defense Department to draft a plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. That sounds neat, safe and antiseptic. But it means going to war, a momentous enterprise that rarely goes as planned.

American military intervention over the past 12 years has been a trail of tears, littered with pulverized buildings, dead bodies and piles of burning cash. We have a reverse Midas touch: Every success turns to failure.

Remember when President George W. Bush mounted a military surge to stave off defeat in Iraq? Foreign policy hawks regard that as his greatest achievement. But today, the country is sliding toward civil war. April was the deadliest month in nearly five years, with 712 people killed, and May has been nearly as bad. Some 66 people died in bombings on Monday, bringing the month's fatalities to more than 500.

Afghanistan is no place to find reasons for hope. Our allies in the Afghan army are distrustful of us, often hostile and generally substandard in performance. Last year, "insider" attacks by supposedly friendly Afghan security personnel killed 61 troops from the U.S.-led coalition forces.

We have been there since 2001, and there is no happy resolution in sight. The former top commander in Afghanistan, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, says that "there's going to be an international military presence in Afghanistan for a long time."

Libya looked like the mission that finally changed our luck: We unleashed air power, toppled the regime of Moammar Gadhafi and made a brisk exit. But things haven't gone quite as swimmingly as we had hoped. Maybe you've heard of Benghazi?

That disaster may be the least of our troubles. The Daily Beast reports that the upheaval in Libya has been a boon to al-Qaida: "Libya has now become the main base of the terror group in the region, heightening the instability of what is already a volatile country."

If we still can't make these countries right, why do we assume we'll do better in Syria? It could easily turn out worse. McCain says U.S. ground troops won't be needed, but what if we take on Assad and he survives? Once we commit to his removal, interventionists will demand that we expand the fight rather than abandon it.

And what if a limited intervention does work? Our reward could be a government worse than the current dictatorship. One of the chief rebel factions is publicly affiliated with al-Qaida—and others are equally extreme in outlook. U.S. intervention may deliver victory to people we wouldn't dream of letting through a TSA checkpoint.

If we go to war in Syria, it will be without any real assurance of what it will take, how long it will last, how many lives we'll lose and what the outcome will be. But if the past is any guide, we'll do it, and we'll be sorry we did.