My late grandfather, a dedicated communist until Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956, was fond of quoting Marxist aphorisms (an enthusiasm that long outlasted his admiration for the Communist Party). Among his favorites was the much-cited opening passage of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, published in 1852:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
It's a great line, with the double virtue of being eminently quotable and giving Hegel -- that's Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, not to be confused with Chuck -- a nice little backhand smack on the nose. But it's also much too pat. Sure, history repeats itself, and sure, sometimes things get farcical. Mostly, though, the second go-round brings only more tragedy.
So it is with President Barack Obama and Syria.
Because you've heard this one before, right? An American president tells the world that brief, decisive military action is necessary to keep a murderous Middle Eastern despot from using weapons of mass destruction. The world is skeptical (as is the U.S. public). Declassified U.S. intelligence reports are bandied about. Foreign leaders remain unconvinced, urging patience and diplomacy as U.N. inspectors prepare a report of their own. The American president insists he'll use force unilaterally if necessary, and dares Congress to disagree. Congress caves.
The first time -- that would be Iraq, for those of you who are new around here -- things ended badly. You'll recall that the intelligence turned out to have been cooked (if not cooked through, it was at least half-baked). The U.N. secretary-general declared the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq illegal. And despite early Bush administration promises that the use of U.S. military force would be limited in scope and duration, the United States soon found itself embroiled in a multi-sided conflict that lasted eight years, cost more than a trillion dollars and killed nearly 4,500 American servicemembers (not to mention untold thousands of Iraqis).
You may also recall a young senator named Barack Obama, whose principled opposition to the Iraq War brought him national fame. In October 2002, Obama had this to say about the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq:
I don't oppose all wars ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war ... I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity ... But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors ... I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda.
It was a good speech. The kind of speech -- full of passion and honesty and good sense -- that eventually propelled Obama into the White House.
Ten years later, of course, it's President Obama who finds himself trying to sell a U.S. military intervention to a reluctant world. The ironies are staggering, and sad.
I won't belabor the parallels, for there are very real differences between Iraq and Syria, and between Bush and Obama. Saddam Hussein's most egregious acts of butchery were largely over by 2003, while the butchery in Syria is ongoing. Bush embraced the war in Iraq with enthusiasm, while Obama came only reluctantly to his current embrace of military action in Syria. And while regime change was a stated objective of the Iraq War, Obama has explicitly foresworn regime change as an objective in Syria.