The generation that came of age during World War II famously — and, in time, tragically — came to apply the formative lessons to every foreign-policy event that followed it. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War, and then, more recently, the Iraq War, was imprinted with the opposite lessons.Basically what he's saying is that its important to see what is being considered in Syria on its own merits (or demerits) and not project one's feelings about America's past onto this situation.
I see evidence of this in commentators who can't quite wrap their minds around the idea that the United States would take military action in a country minus a goal for regime change. Its understandable that this would be difficult given our country's past. Whether via overt invasions or covert means, we have a long history of assuming the exceptionalist position that we have the right to determine another country's leadership and fate.
President Obama has demonstrated that he does not simply shy away from the use of military force - much to the chagrin of many people on the left. What he has also demonstrated is that when he makes that call, it is often in support of giving the people of a country the opportunity to decide their own fate...and live with the consequences. We saw that in Libya where the goal of intervention was to stop a massacre of the Libyan people, not regime change. As Chait points out:
The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.Julia Ioffe sees the same thing happening in discussions at the White House about Syria.
As always, the administration is split on action in Syria, and on what, if anything, should be done...Looking at the roster of the fifteen people at the President's meeting to discuss the Syria crisis, they split roughly in two: the do more camp, and the do less camp. "People have been pretty stable in their positions," said a source familiar with the situation. "I don’t think anyone has changed their position."...(Emphasis mine)
By Monday evening, the policy was still very much up in the air, but the "do less" camp seemed to be winning, probably because of Obama's notorious reluctance on such things. The outlines of what the Obama administration is likely to do was starting to take shape: the U.S. would likely act, but it would act mostly to impose a sense of consequence, stopping short of doing something obviously designed to shift the balance inside Syria between Assad and the motley rebel crew...That is, it would do enough damage to show the world that Obama's word is bond, that a red line...is a red line, but would stop short of weakening Assad enough to let some increasingly shady people topple him. Retaliating for chemical weapons use, says one administration official, "would not be because of a desire to intervene in Syria, but to prevent future chemical weapons use."
Whether or not you agree with whatever action the President decides to take in Syria, it is important to note the significant change this represents in U.S. foreign policy. I suspect that the reason so many people are struggling with understanding it is that they have a hard time envisioning an American foreign policy that recognizes our moral obligation to our principles - including both standing up for human rights abuses and ceding control of a country's fate to their own people.
Most often arguments about foreign policy have been limited to a binary choice between interventionists and isolationists. As his domestic policy has shown over and over again, the pragmatist in President Obama has refused those ideological positions and looked for "what works" from either one. That, as VP Biden said, is a BFD when it comes to a change in our foreign policy.