A Syria Hawk's Failure to Learn the Lessons of Iraq

What gives Richard Cohen confidence that his sweeping foreign-policy pronouncements are correct?
Reuters

The hawkish Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen took to Slate in 2008 to explain and lament his support for the Iraq War, noting that he wouldn't have been as keen on the invasion if he'd known it "would grind on for more than five years." (The conflict would in fact continue years longer.) "I had been to Iraq, but I didn't know what I didn't know," he wrote. "One of those things, certainly, is how little we understood the society—an ignorance so profound I don't think 100,000 more troops would have made a difference. We, journalists and government alike, listened to the wrong people and came away smug in ignorance."

The Iraq War has turned a lot of Americans against foreign interventions. You'd expect the effect to be particularly pronounced among journalists who supported the invasion, witnessed its catastrophic consequences, reflected on their wrongheaded judgments, and set them down in print, calling themselves "smug in ignorance."

It isn't that these people should never write about foreign policy again. But they ought to make more modest claims, reflecting both the limits of knowledge in that realm and the fact that their certainty has not proved itself to be reliable in the past.

Yet here is Cohen, smug as ever, reflecting on the centennial of World War I and taking from that conflict this lesson: effectively, that President Obama ought to have struck Syria. Why? Failure to make good on his "red line" threat worries Japan and South Korea. Here's how Cohen puts it in the column, "Isolationism's High Price":

... in the Far East, what concerns South Korean, Japanese and other policymakers is not just the potential instability of the region but also the Obama administration’s erratic Syrian policy. A “red line” was pronounced, then ignored. Force was threatened by the president, and then the decision was lateraled to Congress where, to further the metaphor, the ball was downed and, just for good measure, deflated. None of this comforted the nations that see China as a looming menace and rely on the United States for backup. “[T]he administration’s prevarications over Syria continue to linger for the elites who drive national strategy in these countries,” wrote Michael J. Green, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

The Syria debacle, coupled with the consensus that the United States is turning inward, is bound to produce instability. The South Koreans, in particular, have to worry if the Dear Leader in the North considers President Obama to be a paper tiger. The Japanese have to worry whether the Chinese have reached the same conclusion. 

Implicit in this argument is a staggering degree of self-assurance. Before the world knows whether the ongoing destruction of Syria's chemical weapons is successful or not, Cohen declares Obama's approach, which could conceivably end in their eradication without a shot fired, a "debacle"; he implies it would've been better to make good on the "red line" threat, though he has no idea what consequences air strikes would've had; he presumes to know what both South Korea and Japan feel about our Syria policy, offering no evidence of any substance; he writes as if U.S. military strikes might've been worth undertaking in order to assuage the speculative anxieties of these foreign countries; he declares there to be a consensus that America is "turning inward," though there is no such thing; and he regards it as a certainty that more instability will flow from current policy, even though the presumed alternative involved war with Syria!

Then there's his conclusion. Having declared himself, at the beginning of the column, "severely underqualified to provide an answer" about what caused World War I, he is somehow, by the end of the column, confident that Germany's behavior before the Great War is the right analog to China's behavior today:

Nowhere is the United States more indispensable than in the Far East, where a rising China, acting like pre-World War I Germany, is demanding respect and flexing its muscles. It’s all too familiar: rising nationalism, excessive pride, irrationality ready in the wings and America going into its habitual hibernation. 

This is not a man who has learned what he doesn't know. And that is vexing, given the stakes. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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