Turning back the hands of time

In 1969, the year I graduated from Thomas Dale, Tyrone Davis had a huge hit with If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time.  His song expressed an emotion we’ve all felt. 

But what Tyrone Davis knew – what made his song so poignant and soulful – is that life doesn’t allow you to reverse past mistakes.  

That old song came to mind the other day, when Senator John McCain and his faithful senatorial sidekick, Lindsey Graham, emerged from a meeting with President Obama.  

Talking with reporters, Senator McCain argued that the U.S. should intervene in Syria – not with the limited, punitive bombing campaign the President wants, but with attacks that would seriously weaken the military capabilities of the Assad regime.

McCain’s position will surprise no one, but what struck me was something he said in answer to a reporter’s question.  He said he supported military action now because he had supported it two years ago – when the rebellion against Assad first broke out.

As if that were a logical necessity.

Circumstances change, and when they do, strategies must change with them.  McCain, an Annapolis graduate combat veteran, certainly knows that.

But Senator McCain – like President Obama – is yielding to the delusion which seems so common among contemporary American leaders.  Washington seems to have become addicted to trying to do – too late – what it failed to do when an opportunity first presented itself.

The classic illustration of this penchant for attempting to turn back time was the Iraq War.  Our 2003 invasion – based on fabricated intelligence and an imaginary connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden – was the brainstorm of a group of high-ranking officials in the George W. Bush administration.

These officials regretted their failure twelve years earlier – under the first President Bush – to finish off Saddam as part of Operation Desert Storm.  They desperately wanted a do-over.

Toppling Saddam in 1991 made perfect sense.  Our troops were already there.  Saddam’s military had collapsed.  And we had just cause, owing to Saddam’s invasion and conquest of Kuwait.

Invading Iraq in 2003 made no sense.  We were already involved in a necessary war in Afghanistan, and on the verge of rounding up the al-Qaeda leaders who had planned and ordered the 9-11 attacks.  Iraq required the diversion of vital assets, including crucial special forces teams.  

The results:  Osama bin Laden escaped, to live and plot for ten more years; the war in Afghanistan bogged down; and the war in Iraq proved our biggest military fiasco since Vietnam.

The opportunity of 1991 was missed.  The 2003 attempt to turn back time proved a disaster.

On the Syria question, Senator McCain was almost certainly right two years ago.  When the rebellion against Assad’s ruthless dictatorship was just beginning, there was every reason for the U.S. to provide military assistance to the rebels.

There was a decent chance that Assad would be replaced by someone better.  Syria’s population contained a substantial middle class – the sort of educated, relatively prosperous professionals and businessmen essential to building a stable, broad-based post-Assad regime.

But that was two years ago.  Back then, President Obama chose to dither and bloviate.  He talked about how fine it would be if the rebels won.  He sent non-lethal, humanitarian aid.  

But he let the rebels fight it out on their own – against Assad’s powerful military, police and intelligence organizations.

And Syria descended into Hell.  

A lot of Syrians – 200,000 is a good estimate – died.  Two million Syrians fled the country – including the very middle-class people necessary to rebuild it.

And America missed its chance.  

Times – and circumstances – have changed.  After two years of savage internecine struggle, Syria is a wasteland.  Rebuilding its infrastructure, its economy, its neighborhoods and cities – even under a stable, effective government – will take decades.  

And of course, many of the solid, middle-class citizens who would take the lead in the rebuilding process are gone – dead or fled.

What might have been possible two years ago is no longer an option.  Helping Syria’s rebels now offers little prospect of replacing Assads’s brutal regime with something more civilized.

Look, every thoughtful person has had regrets.  All of us have wished – about some choice we’ve made – that we could go back in time and do things differently.

But that’s impossible.

Today, America’s leaders – powerful people accustomed to getting their way – too often pretend that they are somehow immune from the rules we all live by.  

As so often in Washington, a little humility would be very helpful about now.   It really is a shame we didn’t intervene in Syria two years ago, when we might have accomplished something worthwhile.

But we missed the boat.  

And Tyrone Davis had it right.  Nobody – not even an American President – can turn back the hands of time.

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