I tell my students at the beginning of each semester that ideas have consequences.
And, that a grand idea, which does not work, can be very, very dangerous.
The recent American effort to punish Syria for chemical weapons use -- that, lest we forget, pushed up oil prices and threatened an even greater spike -- is rooted in what may very well be a flawed idea.
Emerging from the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan- and stemming from the defeat in Vietnam- has come a new strategy that posits itself as the way forward for American involvement around the world.
It is called counterinsurgency.
For many casual observers, embracing counterinsurgency was the reason America was able to turn the tide in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was the surge of troops to both wars, along with new generals, that enabled America to embark on true nation building and protection of the general population.
This ability to focus more on “hearts and minds” resulted in greater stability and security.
This is what President Obama is really saying about Syria: America can use military power in a meticulous fashion to protect the Syrian population from its own government.
This is perilous and dead wrong.
In a compelling new book Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, U.S. Army Colonel Gian Gentile, a veteran of the Iraq War and currently a professor at West Point, writes “Elites and opinion makers have come to believe in the promise of counterinsurgency as though it were a religion, complete with its very own Bible, high priests, Messiah, and rebirth.”
Gentile traces the birth of this religion to the revisionism that arose from the defeat in Vietnam.
A narrative has emerged since 1975 that goes something like this: America won the major military engagements, along with the hearts and minds of the population. But, failed to maintain adequate support of its South Vietnamese ally, ultimately resulting in the triumph of the North.
Blame is cast on Congress and U.S. domestic political forces for turning their backs on the South. The way the war was fought gets little real attention.
Gentile dissects this incorrect view and asserts “unless the United States was willing to stay in Vietnam for generations to do armed national building, the collapse of South Vietnam was inevitable.”
Iraq and Afghanistan – and possibly now Syria- are present-day manifestations of this convoluted notion that America can have it both ways.
We can kill, destroy, injure, and inflict terrible catastrophe on a population, so long as we also trying to “help” them.
As Colonel Gentile so eloquently observes, “Any military intervention should be undertaken with a clear understanding of the reality of war, which inevitably involves death, destruction, and human suffering.”
The conceited American ideal that we can wage war and -- at the same time -- win hearts and minds is hubris.
The Greeks had a goddess of retribution: who punished those souls that stood arrogant in the face of Nature.
She was called Nemesis.
Let all of us hope that counterinsurgency quickly becomes a failed idea before it becomes a grand nemesis.