Commentary

A Lincoln Brigade for Syria

The sofa samurai and ivory-tower warriors are in full war cry over Syria. Washington should do something! It’s time to recreate the Lincoln Brigade so they can go to war without dragging America into yet another unnecessary conflict.

When the conventional wisdom takes over in Washington, the crescendo can swell to epic proportions. So it has over Syria.

For instance, the so-called Three Amigos—senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman, who have rarely found a country they didn’t want to bomb or invade—naturally wanted war early and often in Syria. Rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio recently complained that the Obama administration’s demand that Assad go “has not been coupled with action.”

At the other side of the political spectrum, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen fulminated over America’s failure to act. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof expressed shock that a Nobel Peace Prize winner had not involved America in another war. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution argued that pundits should concentrate on advocating war, not worrying about the details: “I’m pretty sure it’s not the job of civilian think tanks to prepare a full, detailed battle plan for Syria.”

Absent from this advocacy is any belief that practicality matters, that prudence should influence policy, that going to war should be based on something more than feelings. Who cares about the consequences of war? Just do it!

America is a republic in which the military serves the civilian society. The highest ideal is peace, not war.”

We went through a similar exercise less than a decade ago. In the run-up to the Iraq war, opposition was drowned out with a similar crescendo of outraged claims of imminent threats draped with humanitarian rhetoric. Opponents of war were accused of being pro-Saddam Hussein. Armchair generals promised a “cakewalk” that would drain the swamp, create a model democracy, extend U.S. influence and cause the lion to lie down with the lamb.

When reality intruded after the invasion, the American people felt duped and turned against a campaign they originally supported. In Syria, there is no public support for intervention to start with. Disappointment likely would begin immediately.

War advocates don’t argue that this time would be different. They act as if Iraq didn’t happen. There’s no danger of repeating history because there apparently is no history.

If experience won’t limit their enthusiasm for war, we need another way to channel their enthusiasm. Instead of letting them start another foolish, counterproductive conflict—with a potentially lengthy, costly and counterproductive occupation to follow—we should let them go directly to war themselves. We need a new Lincoln Brigade.

The Lincoln Brigade (actually a battalion) was part of the international forces that fought for the Republican government against Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Formed in 1937, the Lincoln Brigade later joined with the Washington Brigade. Some 2,800 Americans served in the two units, seven hundred of whom died either in combat or of disease before the foreign fighters were withdrawn in late 1938.

Members of the Lincoln Brigade viewed themselves as idealistic. Their courage was undeniable, as was their willingness to live what they preached. They believed in foreign intervention and they intervened—personally. No advocating grand crusades, ignoring the necessary planning and leaving the dirty work to others. This was hands-on foreign policy at its finest.

Such an approach would be particularly welcome today since so many zealous enthusiasts for war haven’t served in the active military. Nor have the leaders who took America into war.

President Bill Clinton famously avoided the draft while attempting to preserve his “political viability.” President George W. Bush joined the reserves when it was a favored vehicle for avoiding service in Vietnam. Vice President Richard Cheney famously explained that he had “other priorities” in using five deferments to stay out of the Vietnam War military. President Barack Obama never got close to a military uniform or base until he was president. All have more often deployed the military and started more wars than President Ronald Reagan, who was painted as a rabid cowboy during the 1980 campaign.

If “Lincoln Brigade” seems a bit dated or esoteric for the name, one could call it the “Second Chance Brigade,” for those who just didn’t get around to serving in the military when they were young. Or even the “Cheney Brigade,” for everyone who was just too busy when they were in their twenties.

This doesn’t mean military service should be the primary criterion for election to high political office. America is a republic in which the military serves the civilian society. The highest ideal is peace, not war. And at a time in which only a small percentage of people thankfully need don a uniform, the vast majority of political leaders will not have done so. Nor does this mean that those who have not served should not comment on international affairs. We all have a stake in our nation’s defense, whether we served in the military, were military brats (like me) or had no connection to the armed forces.

However, those who believe the military should be a tool of social engineering, that American lives should be risked to conduct foreign crusades without any vital or even merely serious U.S. security interests at stake, have a special responsibility to the country. The warrior wannabes have little credibility if they do not put their principles into action.

For instance, the youthful pundits and activists who shouted for war against Iraq and denounced as defeatists and traitors those who wanted to end the occupation should have visited armed forces recruiting stations to offer their help. When then United Nations ambassador Madeleine Albright asked General Colin Powell, “What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?,” he should have offered her a top position in the about-to-be-formed Second Chance Brigade.

So it is with the Greek Chorus loudly chanting to send bombers over or troops into Syria. The more fervid the support and impassioned the claim, the greater the responsibility to enlist. Early in the U.S. Civil War, the most fervent advocates for battle actually formed military units. They were expected to lead in combat. It is a practice that should be resurrected.

There is no good answer to Syria. The suppression of peaceful demonstrators and incipient civil war is a tragedy, as is violent war, brutal repression and social conflict in many other nations. If several thousand dead in Syria requires a headlong rush to war, will America ever be at peace?

And maintaining the peace for this nation—protecting this people—is the U.S. government’s highest priority. The government has the greatest responsibility to its own citizens. It is time to say no to more unnecessary wars. If some people can’t wait to start another one, they should be the ones to fight it.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.