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Time to let someone else make the mistakes

In an article entitled "The Unending War" reacting to last Saturday's air strike on a "Doctors Without Borders" hospital in Afghanistan's embattled Kunduz city, London's Economist laments "the perils of matching first-world firepower with third-world decision-making," adding that "the tragedy underlines the extent to which America's longest war is not over, nor America's part in it."

 Indeed, as former CIA official Patrick Skinner writes in The Cipher Brief, "Despite the expenditure of more than a trillion U.S. dollars and the loss of more than 2,000 U.S. personnel, it is violent extremism ó and not freedom ó that endures in Afghanistan."

 Notwithstanding, the Economist article then promptly goes on to insist that withdrawing remaining U.S. forces by the end of next year, as President Obama has pledged to do, would be "senseless." In short, for the Economist ó and for too many others ó the solution to America's "unending war" apparently is to make certain that it remains unending.

 That same upside-down logic infuses current debate on Syria. Writing in the Washington Post, former National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates insist that, to counter Russia's recent intervention in Syria, "we have to create our own facts on the ground. No-fly zones and safe harbors for populations are not 'half-baked' ideas. They worked before."

Well now, let's think about that. A no-fly-zone over northern Iraq following the first Gulf War ó what some British airmen called "recreational bombing" ó preceded a second and far more destructive war, which is turning out to be just as unending as Afghanistan's. 

Subsequently, what began as a no-fly-zone over Libya "to prevent a humanitarian disaster" turned into a campaign to remove strongman Muammar Gadhafi, producing ó you guessed it ó a humanitarian disaster. 

So now, with aircraft from half a dozen different nations trying to stay out of each other's way in the fraught airspace over the virtually indistinguishable borders dividing Syria from Turkey from Iraq, Rice and Gates propose to impose a no-fly-zone? This, to "create facts on the ground?" One can only wonder what in the world they're smoking.

The really interesting phenomenon is the extent to which Russian intervention in Syria has shifted the grounds of discussion. What began way back in 2011 as an ill-considered endorsement of the rebellion that led to today's Syrian civil war ended by opening the door to ISIS and virtually destroying an Iraqi military that we had spent years and billions standing up.

Since then, U.S. policy has been whipsawed repeatedly between Mr. Obama's frustrated ambition to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his thus far equally frustrated ambition to "defeat and degrade" the very ISIS that Syria's agony helped to create, and his desire despite both ambitions to avoid getting enmeshed in still another "unending" war.

Now, however, if recent commentary is to be believed, all three have become ancillary to the need to "counter Russian influence in the Middle East" and "reassert U.S. leadership" ó even though Russian intervention offers far and away the best excuse anyone could imagine for getting ourselves out of the strategic hole we've unwisely dug for ourselves.

Thus, we have Secretary of State John Kerry complaining to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that, by targeting anti-Assad rebels as well as ISIS, Russia is defying U.S. policy, never mind Russia's unambiguously vocal opposition to that policy and equally longstanding and unembarrassed support of the Assad government. 

We have Defense Secretary Ashton Carter complaining that Russian air operations in Syria are "unprofessional" because uncoordinated with those of the U.S. and our allies, even though it's the U.S. that has publicly refused to cooperate with Russia despite repeated Russian offers to do so, and despite the risk of unintended confrontations in the sky.

And of course, we have perennial Obama critic and intervention advocate Sen. John McCain reportedly complaining to reporters that orders rerouting U.S. aircraft to preclude such unintentional confrontations are "disgraceful" and "humiliating." Presumably, for Mr. McCain, a mid-air collision that neither government desires would be less disgraceful and embarrassing.

Among the pithier adages attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte is the advice never to interrupt an enemy while he's in the process of making a mistake. Whether Russia is or should be an enemy deserves a discussion of its own. But on the evidence of our own unhappy experience in the Middle East and that of Great Britain before us, it's certainly making a mistake.

For going on a century, the Middle East has been a resource and reputational sinkhole for every great power that has tried to tame it. Once part of the "Sick man of Europe," the region has repeatedly proved impervious to both modernization and civilization.

Russia's intervention isn't likely to change that. Nor, being less fanciful than we are, does it likely expect to do so. The worst that it can do is embarrass itself, and there's no earthly reason for us to interfere.

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