Warfare as practiced by European nations has been obsolete since World War I. Sometimes the news travels slowly. There are always sociopaths like Bashar Al-Assad and Saddam Hussein who don't understand the dark side of power and are willing to use war to hold on to their positions.
War was already obsolete when an anarchist's bomb took the life of Austrian Arch-Duke Ferdinand in 1914. The great powers of the day—England, France, Germany, Russia, Austria—didn't realize the futility of war then, but they were about to find out.
The great powers developed a system whereby one power would threaten another with war unless some condition were met. The weaker side would give in quickly to avoid being obliterated. But the Great Powers kept on using the threat of war to get their own way, just as the playground bully shakes his fist and menaces the other children.
World War I changed all that. The Great Powers were throwing their military weight around as usual but no one backed down. Nearly all the countries in Europe became involved in a deadly conflict which was marked by wide-spread use of poison gas and the newly invented machine gun. Thirty-seven million people died. Governments toppled in Germany, Russia, and France. Countries fell apart—The Ottoman Empire split into numerous small states that are still causing trouble today: Iraq and Syria were created from remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
The Great Powers of Europe were humbled by their losses. They promised never to fight each other again. And so they didn't, for 20 years, until another huge war broke out between them that truly engulfed the entire world. More than 60 million people died in that war.
As a result of these 2 disastrous wars, the European powers gave up trying to bully other nations. They created the United Nations and signed treaties promising not to attack other nations without just cause. Today, only one country, the United States, still believes in Great Power politics. It still threatens other, weaker countries, and goes to war if its demands aren't met.
Under Presidents Reagan, the two Bushes, and Clinton, the U.S. continued to attack countries with an enormous military machine. In 2008, the citizens of the U.S. elected Barack Obama instead of John McCain as their president, at least partly because they though Obama would end wars rather than start them. Obama has ended wars, though not as quickly as we had hoped. McCain, from his seat in the Senate, kept on urging Obama to start new wars. But Obama resisted the temptation.
Now, Obama seems to have fallen under the influence of bad advisors. These advisors, including some in the military and many in the press, have urged him to attack Syria because of the atrocities committed by the Syrian government against its own people. Eventually, Obama decided to attack Syria to “punish” the regime for using chemical weapons.
Obama forgot that war itself is an atrocity. If we attack another country to punish it for going to war, we become the war mongers, the killers of civilians, the agents of death and destruction. If we attack Syria, the world press will be filled for years with pictures of victims of American aggression and our hospitals will be filled with our own wounded soldiers.
Nothing can be achieved by war that cannot be achieved more cheaply and with less destruction by other means. Syria's government should be made to pay for its atrocities, but the people should be spared further suffering at our hands. The proper forum for punishment is the International Criminal Court, where Bashar Assad and his cronies will be prosecuted alongside the perpetrators of violence in Kenya, Uganda, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Mali.
The way to deal with Assad and his ilk is through diplomacy and economic pressure. All of these perpetrators have bank accounts outside Syria. We should freeze their assets. We know (or can discover) the companies who are selling them arms. We should put pressure on those companies to change their ways if they want to stay in business.
Putin has taken center stage in Syria. He wants to be considered an important player on the world scene. He wants Russia to return to her time of greatness. In other words, he wants to start up the Great Powers game again.
America cannot counter the Putins of the world if our hands are not clean. We can't credibly attack Syria for using poison gas if we supplied Saddam Hussein with poison gas to use against Iran. The Iranians are going to remember that. We can't credibly attack Assad for murdering his own citizens in a civil war when we started a war in Iraq that resulted in more than 115,000 civilians killed by violence. It may be that our actions in Iraq were less intentional than Assad's in Syria. But our intervention in Iraq was a violation of the UN Charter and an unintentional death is still a death that would not have happened without U.S. intervention.
Barack Obama came to the Presidency with little or no foreign policy experience. He had served in the Senate for only two years. He had drawn attention to himself by opposing the Iraq War, but had little knowledge of the machinery of war, armies, weapons, spies. The American war machine was complex, since the American people were not militaristic but presidents wanted to carry on war continuously nevertheless.
Obama promised to end the Iraq War and expand the Afghan War to find Osama Bin Laden. He fell into the traps set for him by the generals. They told him they would win the Afghan war with just a few more troops. The Surge, they called it. Obama believed them and gave his approval to the tactic.
The Surge in Afghanistan was expensive and gained nothing, no territory, no strategic advantage, no improvement. After the Surge, Obama stopped approving new initiatives in Afghanistan and began an inevitable drawdown that would lead to withdrawal.
Obama was suspicious of his generals, but he accepted their philosophy of American power. They told him that America must prove she is a SuperPower. She must impose her will around the world. If necessary, she must use force, to prove her strength to her enemies. Then they waited for an opportunity to become involved in another war.
American militarists believe the America has a right to attack any country in the world if that country is harming its citizens or neighbors. Obama certainly knew international law, which states that any intervention in the affairs of a sovereign country is a violation. The militarists chose their issue well. Obama has two daughters and loves them. He was blinded by his love for the children who lost their lives in Syria. The militarists were gleeful. They foresaw another decade of war.
But Obama disappointed them. Not only was the plan illegal, the American people opposed it. He gave up his plan of revenge. The militarists were stunned. They called him vacillating and weak. Nicolas Kristof, no militarist, claimed the American president must keep his word, once given. This is nonsense. Everyone has the right to change his mind.
So the Great Power theory of foreign policy is moribund. If America will not play the game, no one will. The other countries of the world must take up the challenge. Acting together, they must uphold international law.
War is henceforward obsolete and now everyone knows it.