Remember when Wesley Clark was going to be our next Democratic president? That was back when the donkey party felt like it needed to trot out tuff guys, and Clark qualified due to his leading role in the Kosovo War, a conflict that many are pointing to now as the go-to historical precedent for whatever President Barack Obama does next in Syria.
Clark, an interventionist who supports hitting Syria, says not so fast:
A better precedent is President Bill Clinton's strike against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's intelligence center in Baghdad with cruise missiles in 1993, in punishment for Saddam's alleged plot to assassinate then-former President George H. W. Bush.
The missiles struck, without any significant collateral damage. The plot against a president was avenged.
Did the measured strike work as deterrence? Well, there certainly were no more assassination plots, at least not to our knowledge. On the other hand, Saddam remained defiant. A year later he deployed divisions to Iraq's southern border into the same sort of attack positions they had occupied prior to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
In response, the U.S. prepared to deploy additional forces into the region, and the United Nations tightened the imposed no-fly zone south of Baghdad. U.S. military preparations focused ever more intently on an invasion of Iraq. The Republican Congress passed, with Democratic support, a resolution advocating "regime change." You can't always control the script after you decide to launch a limited, measured attack.
So, a symbolic gesture of violence produces more hostility from the target, feeding into a series of events that leads to congressional authorization of regime change, and eventually the most disastrous U.S. war since Vietnam. And this is an argument for lobbing bombs into Syria?
Clark's closing argument manages to be both half-hearted and open-ended:
At a time when U.S. security interests are much broader than the Middle East, and we face numerous economic and political challenges at home, it is tempting to think of action against Syria's regime as a significant distraction. But President Obama has rightly red-lined the use of chemical weapons. The horrible pictures of hundreds dead and dying is a warning to all of us that some weapons are simply too inhuman to be used. Responding to Syrian use is not without risk. But as many of us learned during the 1990s, in the words of President Clinton, "Where we can make a difference, we must act."
Back in 2004, I included Clark in a round-up of what the Democrat architects of Kosovo were saying about the Republican project of Iraq, a piece with the prescient though sadly predictable title of "Temporary Doves."