Wolfowitz: Syria isn't Iraq 2003, it's Iraq 1991

Yesterday, Joe Scarborough accused Howard Dean of sounding just like Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the 2003 Iraq War.  Why accept a pale imitation when we can have the genuine article?  Eli Lake interviewed Wolfowitz, now at the American Enterprise Institute, about the situation in Syria and its historical parallel to other American interventions/non-interventions in the region.  Wolfowitz agrees that the situation in Syria isn’t analogous to Iraq in 2003, but says it’s the same as our non-intervention in 1991 when Saddam Hussein went after the Shi’ites:


“People are saying this is not Iraq, and it’s correct,” Wolfowitz tells The Daily Beast. “We are not talking about sending American troops in to change a regime. The administration seems to be talking about a low-risk military operation, one that involves putting very few American lives at risk.”

Wolfowitz says the situation in Syria today reminds him more of the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991, when Iraqi Shiites began an uprising against Saddam Hussein and the United States did nothing to help them. Colin Powell, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, ruled out attacks on Iraq’s retreating army, saying it would be a “turkey shoot.”

“It’s not Iraq 2003. It’s Iraq in 1991,” says Wolfowitz, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “In 1991 we had an opportunity without putting any American lives at risk to enable the Shia uprisings against Saddam to succeed. Instead we sat on our hands and watched him kill tens of thousands. We did nothing and we could have very easily enabled those rebellions to succeed. I think if we had done so we could have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein and there would not have been a second war.”

I agree with Wolfowitz that in retrospect it would have been far better to have pressed the war in 1991 all the way to Baghdad.  However, the issue in Syria isn’t at all analogous to Iraq in 1991, and our non-intervention in that civil war, because we had already intervened.  In fact, we had a robust no-fly zone in place during that period and a cease-fire that Hussein arguably was violating with his genocide against the Shi’ites in the south.  The US had plenty of legal justification for declaring the cease-fire null and void and continuing the war, and not just in 1991 but all the way to 2003.

We have no such predicate for action in Syria.  Syria has not declared war on us, nor have they threatened to invade an ally as Hussein did in 1990 to set off the Gulf War.  They are in the middle of a civil war in which the dictatorship isn’t just mowing down a dissenting religious population, but in which multiple sides are committing atrocities. The civil war has developed into a fight between Sunni and Shi’ite extremists, both of which are enemies of the US, and it’s not in our strategic interest to intervene on behalf of either set.

The proper analogy here is Iraq 1987-88, when Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran and then to commit genocide against the Kurds at Halabja, where 5,000 were killed.  Not only did the US not intervene militarily at the time, neither did the world demand an intervention.  In fact, over the last 50 years of chemical-weapons deployments, exactly none of them produced an outside military intervention by a non-belligerent.

There is no US interest at stake in the Syrian civil war, except to make sure it doesn’t expand beyond those borders.  The surest way for that to happen would be for the US to stick itself in the middle of the conflict.

Bonus: Wolfowitz tells Lake that we could have had a big success story in Syria had we acted sooner — like we did in Libya:

His calculation is drawn in part by the response of the Libyan people following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. He says he remembers seeing a photograph of a billboard in Tripoli that thanked the supporters of the Libyan revolution and included the U.S. and NATO. “There could have been that billboard in Damascus,” he says. “But we have waited so long to do anything.”

Maybe someone should acquaint Mr. Wolfowitz with the reality of the outcome in Libya.  This is the best argument yet I’ve heard against American intervention.


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