Major Anniversaries: Milestones or Tombstones

Over the past year, many major anniversaries were celebrated. 2014 marked the start of World War I a century earlier, tragically known as the "Great War" and the war to end all wars. That August, 50 years ago, the Tonkin Gulf Incident set the United States on the path to the Vietnam disaster. Last month in 2015, the centenaries of the failed allied assault on Gallipoli on the Turkish coast and the sinking of the steamship Lusitania were joined by the 40 years since Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the divided country was unified under Hanoi's rule.

This week, V-E Day and the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany 70 years ago, occurs possibly with greater fanfare in Moscow than in former allied capitals. Four years ago last week, Seal Team Six delivered the coup d'gras to Osama bin Laden, ending the hunt for the September 11th mastermind but certainly not the war on terror. And in September, the anniversary of V-J Day and the end of World War II takes place.

The most stunning and unanswerable question is what mankind collectively has learned from these dates and whether each should be celebrated as a milestone or mourned as a tombstone. One observation, as opposed to an answer, is that each date largely led to unfinished business from which further conflict and chaos metastasized. From World War I, World War II and the Cold War followed. Gallipoli probably extended the "war to end all wars" and the sinking of Lusitania did not force immediate American entry to the killing fields of trench warfare in Europe. Bin Laden's death exacted retribution and did nothing to dampen the power of Islamic-based violent extremism.

V-E and V-J Days, however, could have proved one of the most momentous learning experiences of the last century. To borrow from Churchill's preface to his World War II volumes, principally led by the U.S. and the Marshall Plan, the allies were magnanimous in occupying and rebuilding the former enemies despite their vicious and inhuman conduct of the war. One lesson was that democracies are better off not starting wars and ensuring that once joined, winning the peace was as or more important than only winning the conflict.

From Vietnam, inventing casus belli was never a good basis for policy, a lesson ignored three decades later with the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent implosion of that region. However, as the allies understood that the harsh and unjust peace of 1918 could not be repeated in 1945, the U.S. would recognize Vietnam. Today, relations between the two former belligerents have become normalized and even friendly.

The next major opportunity the U.S. faces will take place next week at Camp David. President Barack Obama has invited Arab and Islamic coalition allies to a summit to discuss conditions in the Middle East embracing the huge swath of geography from the Mediterranean and Maghreb through the Gulf to the Bay of Bengal. The intersections of religious, geopolitical, economic, historical, cultural and ideological rivalries, conflicts and hatreds have transformed this vast area into many lurking time bombs replete with an excess of matches. Instead of a single archduke riding in an open car in Sarajevo 101 years ago, a surplus of potential archdukes has been created. And instead of a lone gunman, a surfeit now exists.

Drawing from this mix of milestones and tombstones, how might the Obama administration have planned for this summit? While it is probably too late, this summit could have been a unique opportunity to lay out a comprehensive plan of action for dealing with these many challenges, dangers, threats and opportunities. Unlike the past, there is no single overarching threat in which one alliance battled another. Hence, what are the common interests that bind the often-conflicted members of this coalition and what are the divisive centrifugal forces that must be contained?

Stability and prosperity are clearly shared interests. In that regard, the common threat of the Islamic State (aka Da'esh) is binding. While resolution of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long overdue, under the Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, that prospect is nil. However, beginning or exploring a rapprochement between Sunnis and Shias and Saudi Arabia and Iran is not.

Such an effort must be done delicately and with great nuance. That the P-5 plus One nuclear talks with Iran bear heavily suggest that until they are completed or abandoned, discussions are a first step. And bringing pressure on Iraq to abrogate the de-Bathification laws is important. Otherwise, this summit could prove a tombstone and not a milestone.