By Robert J. Samuelson
WASHINGTON: Perhaps the most misleading phrase in the debate over Syria is “war weary.” Americans, say commentators and politicians across the political spectrum, are exhausted by a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with sideshows in Libya and Yemen. Now Syria? Where does it stop? Americans must be weary.
Of exactly what?
The truth is that for most Americans the constant combat has imposed no burdens, required no sacrifices and involved no disruptions. True, the money spent has been substantial. From 2001 to 2012, reckons the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with related operations cost $1.4 trillion.
Although that’s a lot even by Washington standards, it pales next to all federal spending and the economy’s total production. From 2001 to 2012, federal spending totaled $33.3 trillion; the wars were 4 percent of that. Over the same period, the American economy produced $163 trillion of goods and services. War spending equaled nine-tenths of 1 percent of that.
As important, no special tax was ever imposed to pay war costs. They were simply added to budget deficits, so that few, if any, Americans suffered a loss of income. It’s doubtful that much other government spending was crowded out by the wars.
The largest cost, of course, involves Americans killed and those who suffered life-altering wounds, both physical and mental. As of Sept. 3, the Pentagon counted 4,489 deaths in Iraq and 2,266 in Afghanistan, including some U.S. civilians. To these numbers must be added thousands more with serious injuries. Through September 2011, according to the CBO, 740,000 veterans from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan had received treatment from the Veterans Health Administration. In a study of veterans treated from 2004 to 2009, the CBO found that 21 percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, 2 percent with traumatic brain injury and another 5 percent with both.
The pain, suffering, sorrow and anguish of these and other losses are borne by a tiny sliver of Americans: those who joined the volunteer military, plus their families and close friends. There was no draft. There was no shared sacrifice, as there was in World War II, Korea and (to a lesser extent) even Vietnam. Those who have made the sacrifices have a right to feel “weary.” For the rest of us, it’s a self-indulgence.
What many Americans seem to mean by “weary” is “frustrated.” They’re frustrated and disillusioned that so much fighting over so many years has not brought the clear-cut psychological and strategic benefits of “victory.” For others, the lesson is more stark: These foreign military forays were a waste and, in many respects, have done more harm than good. One way or another, there’s a widespread impatience with our engagements when patience is often required for success.
If it is to be useful, the debate over Syria must broach larger issues. The United States cannot be the world’s policeman. It cannot rectify every wrong or redress every atrocity. It cannot impose the “American way of life” and values on diverse peoples who have their own ways of life and values.
But the United States isn’t Monaco. Since World War II, we have assumed a sizable responsibility for the international order. We have done this not so much out of idealism as out of self-interest. The large lesson of that war was that American abstinence from the global stage ultimately contributed to a global tragedy from which we could not remain aloof.
This lesson endures. But it lacks a firm footing in public opinion. Members of the World War II generation have largely died. Their experience is now an abstraction. The new applications of an old doctrine often suffer from carelessness and expedience — sometimes too much eagerness, sometimes too little. We do have overriding interests in a stable global order. To state an obvious case: It cannot be in our interests (or the world’s) for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
Whatever we do in Syria must spring from a sober calculation of national interest so that it commands broader public support. The worst outcome would be a retreat justified by nothing more than an exaggerated and artificial sense of “war weariness.”
Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.