Micah Zenko

Don’t Know Much About History

What John McCain, Richard Cohen, and Jeffrey Goldberg have in common.


John McCain, speaking at the Canadian embassy in Washington last month, made his customary pitch for bombing the military assets of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and arming certain Syrian rebels. He expressed sympathy for Canada’s strong reservations about getting involved militarily in Syria, "as Iraq and Afghanistan [have] shown." However, in a call to action, the Arizona senator referenced the interventions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, "where, we, with air power, went in and stopped genocide from taking place in the very heart of Europe." McCain concluded with the oft-misquoted warning: "There’s an old line about those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."

The actual passage comes from Volume One of George Santayana’s The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress (1905) and is worth quoting in its entirety:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

One realm in which "experience is not retained" and "infancy is perpetual" is Washington — specifically, when it debates whether to militarily intervene in other countries. Proponents and (to a lesser degree) opponents of military intervention rarely assess simply what impact cruise missiles or smuggled guns may have on their political or military objectives in some distant country. They also rummage through the post-Cold War history to marshal evidence on behalf of their position — which they then cite in ways that are often selective, misleading, or just flat-wrong. And so it has been with Syria.

Last month, columnist Richard Cohen wrote that an "apt comparison" to intervening in Syria "is the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1995 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia." In fact, that campaign took place in 1999 over Kosovo. Even when the piece was updated later in the day, it still contained an error, referring to the "78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia," when it should have read "Kosovo." And the correction added to the updated version contained its own misleading statement: "A shorter series of airstrikes by the alliance in 1995 halted Serbian attacks in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

It is true that the Serbian attacks were halted in large part because of the 1,026 bombs dropped on 48 Bosnian Serb target complexes on 11 of the 17 days of NATO’s air campaign in August and September 1995. (It is often forgotten that NATO member-states’ special operations forces were deployed on the ground as forward air controllers to direct these strikes.) But the primary factor was the combined Bosnian Muslim-Croatian Army ground offensive that reduced the amount of territory controlled by the Serbian army from 70 percent to 45 percent before the Dayton peace talks began. This offensive was supported by French and British ground forces belonging to NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force, who shelled the Bosnian Serbs’ Lukavica barracks near Sarajevo. Thus, while the lessons of airpower are retained, the boots on the ground required to tip the balance are forgotten.

This misreading of what happened in the summer of 1995 in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not confined to columnists. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg recently reported an alleged White House confrontation between Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey over the wisdom of U.S. airstrikes against Assad’s airfields. Both sides assumed their expected positions in this civil-military debate, with Kerry arguing for immediate bombing and Dempsey highlighting the complexities and uncertainties of such an operation. According to Goldberg, "a Kerry partisan" later noted that, after a comparable debate between then-Secretary Madeleine Albright and then-Chairman Gen. Colin Powell, "Bill Clinton eventually decided to use air power in the Balkans. And it brought the Serbian government to its knees." Again, this is highly misleading, but accuracy is an afterthought when you have a point to make.

Meanwhile, intervention proponents, ranging from then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have demanded a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria, possibly by using U.S. fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries stationed in Jordan. They have highlighted the supposed past successes of this tactic in protecting civilians on the ground in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya. In the past month alone, President Obama and Gen. Dempsey have both cited the same statistic in arguing against a NFZ in Syria: the vast majority of Syrian deaths, 90 percent, have not been caused by airstrikes. Instead, the Obama administration is reportedly considering what one official termed a "no fighting zone" — protecting rebels and refugees from all lethal attacks by ground or air — a markedly different and more intensive mission, requiring greater surveillance and strike capabilities.

Here, again, history can be instructive. In August 1996, within Iraqi territory that was "protected" by a U.S.-led NFZ, Saddam Hussein deployed five ground divisions to crush a Kurdish uprising within one week. At the time, the United States had twice warned Hussein that using ground troops "would be a serious mistake." The Clinton administration considered using the U.S. air wing based at Incirlik, Turkey, which was enforcing the NFZ, to stop Saddam’s divisions, but decided against it — the planes were not configured to identify and strike mobile Iraqi ground forces, and Ankara would never have allowed its territory or its airspace to be used for strike missions against Iraq. This is a scenario that could face U.S. combat aircraft if they were to enforce a NFZ over Syria, either from — or over — Jordan and Turkey.  

Three days before he spoke at the Canadian embassy, McCain hosted President Clinton at an event at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Clinton told McCain that he thought the United States should deepen its engagement in Syria — though he offered no specific recommendations — noting, "Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit." However, the former president cautioned: "My view is that we shouldn’t overlearn the lessons of the past. I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan."

Indeed, Syria is not comparable to Iraq or Afghanistan — or Somalia, or Bosnia, or Kosovo, or Libya, or any other U.S. military intervention (or non-intervention) in the past quarter-century. The thorough study of these historical examples does offer a range of lessons that should be learned. However, the motivated misapplication of such lessons in order to support policy preferences in Syria should be condemned.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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