I am not saying that Syria is likely to turn into a new Vietnam for the United States.
And I am not saying whether or not I believe military intervention in Syria is warranted.
But I am saying that some of the saber-rattling of recent days sounds familiar.
This came to my mind on Saturday because at the same moment President Obama was explaining why he felt a U.S. military strike on Syria was warranted, I was reading about President Nixon explain why he felt invading Cambodia was necessary in 1970.
Nixon said that the United States needed to respond to increased attacks from North Vietnam,
especially those coming from across the Cambodian border. He said that failing to act would have dire consequences: "If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."
Rhetorically, he tied a war fought in a distant corner of the Third World to the fate of the Free World, regardless of whether this was true. The way he described it, the safety of the world depended upon the United States attacking North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. It was as if the United States was doing a favor for non-communist nations by invading.
On Saturday, President Obama began making his case to Congress for a strike by U.S. military forces against the Syrian government. This strike would be a kind of punishment to Syria and its leader, President Assad, for "crossing the line" and using chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus. To make his case stronger, Obama tied a limited strike against Syria to an almost unlimited string of negative consequences if the United States did not act.
He said: "Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?"
If Obama does authorize a strike against the Syrian government, I imagine it will consist of cruise missiles. Perhaps they will be launched from the U.S.S. Deja Vu.