Doyle McManus responds to the Syria news a little too glibly:

That’s the Aspin Doctrine: Military intervention doesn’t have to be a slippery slope as long as you keep the option of walking away.

What McManus doesn’t mention here is that the U.S. hasn’t “walked away” from any foreign intervention other than Somalia in over twenty years. It would be welcome news if U.S. leaders could recognize when we ought to cut our losses in a foreign conflict, but they are very reluctant to do so even when that conflict is going very badly for the U.S. For his part, Aspin was Secretary of Defense when Clinton mistakenly chose to increase the ambitions of the U.S. mission in Somalia into a “nation-building” exercise, and it was in large part because of the mistakes in Somalia that Aspin ended up resigning at the end of 1993. The idea that McManus presents as proof of Aspin’s insight (“bomb the Serbs and see what happens”) would be dismissed as a hostile caricature of a feckless interventionist approach to foreign policy if a critic were using it, but McManus thinks it is a wise example to follow. Better advice would be to not escalate America’s role in any conflict until there some reasonably clear picture of what is supposed to be achieved and why it is America’s responsibility to achieve it.

The problem with McManus’ “Aspin Doctrine” is that virtually no one in Washington ever seems inclined to “walk away” from anything overseas, and it doesn’t help that most of the same people seem convinced that most conflicts and crises around the world are our business in one way or another. To favor “walking away” when our grossly exaggerated “vital interests” are supposedly at stake would be to invite accusations of “retreat” and “cutting and running,” and no one wants to be seen doing either of these even if it happens to be the smart thing to do. The result is that no foreign commitment can ever be relinquished once accepted, and no commitment can ever remain limited if a policy isn’t seen as “working.”

Proxy wars can sometimes be the hardest thing to “walk away” from. The fear of letting the rival patron “win” prevents our side from “walking away,” and the fact of past support becomes a justification for continuing the policy for as long as the other patron wants to keep the conflict going. Having committed to one side in a foreign war, what administration would want to accept blame for “abandoning” the people on “our” side? Refusing to get pulled in to a proxy war wouldn’t have represented “defeat” for the U.S., but now that the U.S. committed itself openly it will eventually face another choice of “escalate or accept defeat.”