The dangers in limited involvement in Syria

The problem with the President going to war based on limited involvement is that the involvement may not always be so limited. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2013 — As the United States stands on the brink of entering another conflict, we would be wise to remember the lessons our history has taught us.

When President Obama brought his case for attacking Syria to the American people he was surprised when he was met with resistance and opposition. Many Americans have their reasons; supporting terrorism, war weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan, or simply not believing in the words of the government all serve as arguments against intervention.

However perhaps the people of the United States should look a little further back in their history when thinking of reasons why proposing action in Syria on a limited basis could still prove disastrous.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy had around twenty thousand American personnel in Vietnam. Such personnel included “advisers” such as Special Forces operators, CIA agents, USAID workers, and civilian contractors. Their mission was to support the efforts of local anti-Communist forces with training, weapons, and medical aid. As of 1963 they were making progress in halting the advance of Communist forces into South Vietnam. President Kennedy had even issued orders to begin sending American assets back to the United States. The footprint of their operation was small, and international attention was limited.

JFK was cautious of the dangers of waging a large and overt campaign in Vietnam, and as a result under his Presidency deployment of regular US combat troops never took place. 2 years later, there were almost half a million troops in Vietnam, deployed as part of a massive campaign to take over responsibility of fighting the Communists from the South Vietnamese.

The one main and glaring difference between 1963 and 1965? A new president.

Why the history lesson? Why does all of this matter?

The United States is already actively involved in arming and perhaps training Syrian Opposition forces, some of which have links to groups on the US terrorism watch list. We have sent guns, and possibly Special Forces, to the area in an effort to punish the Syrian President for the alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people.

We are there, but we have not invested significant enough assets in the conflict as to lose political face if we decide that a continued involvement is not in our best interest. Any escalation of involvement on the part of the President will cause him to lose political support at home, which he cannot afford in the least.

President Obama may tell us today that we are going to have a limited involvement, we are just sending advisers, we are just sending weapons, we are just going to train the rebels, or we are just going to make limited airstrikes. It may start out that way, and for a while that may be the entirety of our involvement.

But what about the next president?

Will the next President show such restraint in dealing with the situation in Syria? Of course any candidate will run on limited involvement, any candidate will tell the American people that they are of course going to begin handing security operations to their counterparts in Syria, but as we have seen that is not always the case. Who is to say that this limited involvement of the United States does not escalate? We are already there, and the President has the power to do so. Who is to say that something does not come up and the government says we need to send troops there because of the danger to American interests?

The problem with getting involved with Syria on even a limited basis, aside from the gray area of arming terrorists, is that it gets our foot in the door. It allows the United States government more flexibility with the American people when it comes to pushing for a higher level of involvement in Syria. It is dangerous to the interests of the American people if the US government already has a precedent for involvement in Syria when some new and shocking revelation about the harboring of terrorists or the discovery of some unknown natural gas or oil deposit.

President Kennedy was attempting to wage a very limited war through the South Vietnamese government in 1963, but after his assassination there was a new president, a military draft, and 58,000 American dead. If we do not learn from our mistakes as a nation, and avoid the quick sand that can be “limited engagement” military involvement, the United States will find itself continually drawn in to conflicts which escalate from minimal presence operations to full blown war. Americans should not only be concerned about the intentions of the current administration in Syria, but how future leaders could exploit an ongoing presence in the region to justify an escalation in involvement and lead the nation down a path toward another unwanted war that should, and could have, been avoided altogether


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Conor Higgins

Conor Higgins has a B.A. from Catholic University in DC in American History, with a concentration on guerrilla warfare on American soil. He has an M.A. in US History from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, with a concentration on Cold War insurgency. He believes that all news and all information should be taken with a grain of salt, and implores people everywhere to seek news stories everywhere. 

Higgins is also a fervent believer in the traditional role of media, in terms of acting as a balanced check on government policies and individuals regardless of party affiliation. But in the end, he believes that no matter how heated an issue is, there is nothing that can't be discussed over a smoke and some whiskey. 

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