Watching the troubling events on the northern Syrian border with Turkey -- events that once again drag the United States even deeper into the Middle East -- my thoughts go back to 1983 in Beirut.
American troops had been stationed in that once-beguiling city on the Mediterranean as part of an international peacekeeping force to guard against what were then supposed to be Palestinian terrorists. In fact, several different groups were vying to reach higher levels of mayhem in the region.
And we had made it so very easy for them: We placed all our Marines and others in a huge four-story building right out there in open space. So it was hardly a surprise when an Iranian, probably a Hezbollah driver, took a truck loaded with explosives and drove it straight into the helpless building, which was literally lifted off the ground and exploded in upon itself, killing 241 Americans. It was the largest surprise attack on Americans since Pearl Harbor.
President Ronald Reagan then did something I cannot remember any chief of state doing. He simply withdrew the remaining troops, something many analysts wished earlier presidents had done in Vietnam, and damn the immediate consequences.
Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, a capable man who had been against the deployment in Beirut, tried to clarify the policy, declaring that we should go to war only (1) to protect a vital national interest, (2) if we are willing to commit sufficiently to achieve the goal, and (3) if we are clear about the cost in lives and treasure.
But Weinberger’s commonsensical recommendations were soon forgotten, and we now find ourselves hunkered down in small areas in the north of Syria, our “interests” known and open to all hostile comers, much like Beirut in 1983. We have 2,000 men and women advisers to a largely Kurdish army of 30,000 there.
The Kurds are a fine fighting force and a brave and long-suffering people. But the sad reality is that this Kurdish enclave supported by the U.S. is surrounded by Syrian soldiers under the killer regime of Bashar al-Assad, by Russians supporting Assad who also have air and naval bases in Syria, and by Iranians supporting Hezbollah guerrillas in Beirut.
And the worst is to come. The Kurdish enclave we support, the YPG or People’s Protection Units, is bordered on the north by Turkey, a NATO member and American ally that hates and fears the Kurds because they claim part of Turkey.
These are not passive hatreds. In the past two weeks, increasingly hostile phone calls have been going back and forth between Washington and Ankara. Turkey has invaded the Kurdish border region known as Afrin, called the Kurds there “an army of terrorists,” and promised to wage war on all of Syria’s Kurds.
In the earlier years of the Syrian civil war, serious attempts were made to keep Russians, Iranians, Americans and others with sharp tempers from stumbling lethally over one another. But as The Washington Post’s always well-informed David Ignatius wrote recently, “The space separating these forces has collapsed.”
Meanwhile, American intentions keep inexplicably expanding. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University on Jan. 17, went so far as to commit the U.S. to keeping an indefinite military presence in Syria, vanquishing al-Qaeda, ousting Iran from the country and securing a peace settlement that excludes Syrian President al-Assad -- for starters.
But the sobering questions here lie not so much with the immediate conflict on the Syrian-Turkish border. No, the bigger questions are:
- Why are we, month after month and year after year, getting more deeply involved in the quicksand of military politics in the Middle East when we have no immediate need of our own to do so?
- Why, when we DO get involved, do we so often leave ourselves open to enemy analysis and attack?
- Why have we forgotten that our great nation has the best of natural protections, two great oceans, but we have wantonly sacrificed those defenses as we constantly intervene in other countries and increase our military expenses?
Are we seeing on that bitter and forlorn border between Syria and Turkey the beginnings of yet another open-ended, forever war like the others that have torn us since the end of Vietnam? If so, why?
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.)