A Further Perspective

Washington’s Elites and The March of Folly

Nothing prudent on the road to Damascus.

By 9.9.13

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Peggy Noonan got it exactly right.

“A point on how quickly public opinion has jelled,” wrote Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter. “There is something going on here, a new distance between Washington and America that the Syria debate has forced into focus. The Syria debate isn't, really, a struggle between libertarians and neoconservatives, or left and right, or Democrats and Republicans. That's not its shape. It looks more like a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington's central governing assumptions.”

Noonan continued: “I've been thinking of the ‘wise men,’ the foreign policy mandarins of the 1950s and ’60s, who so often and frustratingly counseled moderation, while a more passionate public, on right and left, was looking for action. ‘Ban the Bomb!’ ‘Get Castro Out of Cuba.’”

“In the Syria argument, the moderating influence is the public, which doesn't seem to have even basic confidence in Washington's higher wisdom,” argued Noonan.

In countless conversations, with family and friends, and with people far to my left or right politically, the usual reaction to the suggestion of bombing Syria is something like, “Can you believe they are going to do this again?” Or, “You’ve got to be kidding.” These comments reveal an underlying alientation from the bubble that is Washington, D.C., where a compulsion to just bomb something seems to have taken hold in some circles.

Polls amply confirm Peggy Noonan’s insight regarding the disenchantment of the American people with another adventure in the sands of the Middle East. Most Americans supported the punitive expedition to destroy terrorists in Afghanistan before that enterprise morphed into a social science experiment to try and engineer a medieval society-kicking, screaming and killing-into a westernized 21st century. Americans also gave President Bush the benefit of the doubt regarding the need to invade Iraq in order to eliminate WMDs that turned out not to exist. The price is still being paid in blood, grief, and treasure not to mention an enhanced geopolitical status for Iran, which reaped great benefit from the removal of its greatest, most immediate enemy.

What did our meddling in Libya get us? We lost a fine Ambassador and other brave Americans who perished in the resulting upheaval. We are also watching the unfortunate consequences of an “Arab Spring” that seems to be very democratic but also very Islamist in character. Recall we deep-sixed the previous Egyptian leader who was a loyal ally and supporter of peace with Israel.

I keep recalling the old Casey Stengel line, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” But this is not a game. It is life and death, war and peace, and the potential squandering of precious human, material, and diplomatic resources of an America that has gone badly off the track economically, socially, and culturally. If this conflict implicated a pressing matter of national interest, we would certainly put our soldiers’ and flyers’ lives on the line and find the money. But for this?

The President is pushing for a reprise of our earlier ventures in this troubled part of the world based on some ill-considered words regarding red lines and such. Let us stipulate that he is right to deem the Syrian regime an abomination. Assad is now and will be considered an international criminal. He is a pariah. Shame, as well as economic and diplomatic sanctions, should be called down upon his head. His wife should never again see the inside of a Parisian boutique. His Swiss bank accounts should be attached.

But his crimes are not the only ones in this sad world we live in. Hundreds of thousands are being starved and worked to death in North Korean slave labor camps. A thousand died each week in the Congo for years. Rwanda did not move the Clinton administration to act. There are refugees all around the world, although the numbers expelled from Syria are indeed staggering. They deserve the world’s humanitarian aid and support.

But involving our armed forces in another problematic conflict in a disfunctional country, in which religion and politics are nearly inseparable, in a region where unintended consequences is the rule rather than the exception, would be another march of folly of our governing elites who inhabit Washington, D.C., insulated economically and socially from the concerns of the majority of their countrymen and women.

It is time to harken back to the prudence of Eisenhower and Reagan and look to our national interest which is not to be found on the road to Damascus.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.