AMERICA’S track record in starting wars has been, shall we say, a bit unworthy of European Great Power standards. It lingered rather than leapt, even in the three defining world wars of the 20th century. It needed substantial persuasion by Britain, not to mention some serious stupidity by the Germans, to drag America into the first two world wars.
Although America was far more keen on confronting communism in the Cold War, Winston Churchill can take more credit than Harry Truman for planting an iron curtain between Nato and the Soviet Union. Fear of communism took America to Korea, a war which has merely paused, and Vietnam, where war is over but on Vietnamese terms.
There were many reasons for American isolationism, but a very good one was uncertainty. America had legitimate concerns about how to end a war before it began one. Europe’s colonial wars had cold clarity. The objective was to throw out ruling dynasties and replace them with viceroys, or obliging maharajas, nawabs, shahs and emirs.
Wars of charity, or ideology if you prefer, in which your purpose is to change the world into something better than it is, are harder to fathom and fashion, for you are confronted with that eternal question: what precisely is better? And how much does conflict actually postpone the better rather than speed it along?
America became more independently aggressive with the Cold War; after 9/11, understandably, it treats aggression as a moral right whenever it perceives a threat from what might be called, broadly, the Muslim sphere.
Since the assault on the twin towers was launched from the shadows, it pursues the underworld of militancy with a ferocity that has not been seen in any conventional conflict. This leads to overkill, and collateral damage to ideals that constitute the very basis of democratic civilisation, but this is a war in which few prisoners are taken, and those left alive are sent to Guantanamo. Death might just be preferable.
Governments that stand in the way, or confront America’s obsessive search for enemies, do so at their peril. They have to be extremely secure, in their nationalism, in their social cohesion, and in their ability to defend themselves, to fend off American incursion or worse.
America made mistakes, with Iraq at the top, because it could have brought it into line without such huge damage. But George Bush, hardly the brightest bulb in the room, and surrounded by as remarkable a collection of dimwits as you are likely to see in a sophisticated capital, misjudged the Iraqi people even if he was accurate in his assessment about the fragility of Saddam Hussein. Iraq has shifted to nebulous on the geo-strategic world map.
Barack Obama is not Bush, although he will go down in history as a Nobel Peace winner who did more to start wars rather than end them. Obama has the wind of 9/11 behind him, but he knows, surely, that it must remain a wind that is helpful to the sailing ships of a superpower, rather than a typhoon that wrecks the home fleet.
He also knows that once he orders the navy into position, retreat means an irretrievable dent in his credibility. He is also intelligent enough to recognise confusion as a problem, rather than wallow in it as an opportunity, as his predecessor did. Obama knows his aims in Syria, but acknowledges that they cannot be achieved by a limited war, which is as far as public opinion will permit him to go.
Obama wants the Assads out of Damascus, but that would need American boots on the ground; the motley and toxic bands of rebels are beyond anyone’s control, whether that of America or regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The next best option is to deplete Syria’s firepower, inflict damage to the morale of its infantry, hit its battle-ready ally Hezbollah, and, last but hardly the least, expose the limitations of both Iran and Russia as military allies. If all Iran and Russia can do is bluster, then America’s message is sent.
The danger is that Iran and Russia could choose their moment to respond, in weeks or months. Russia could use Syrian space for retaliatory action against the Saudis, who are leading the effort against Bashar al-Assad, in their effort to consolidate Sunni space against Iran and its Shia allies.
It is interesting that America remains committed to the Sunni cause despite the fact that 9/11 was a plot by extremist Sunnis. Iran is the paradox encouraging illogical options. What must worry American strategists is Iran’s stability in a region spread across shifting sands. Washington has opted for the familiar against the complex.
In August 2014, we will all be flooded with seminars on the First World War, which changed Syria and the Middle East into the patterns that continue to provoke war today. A missile strike will launch the 100th anniversary of a war that has not ended. So what else is new?
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.