It's not easy trying to manage the world, or even a small part of it that is outside of one's own country.
Consider the US efforts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as older adventures in Latin America.
Or the Russians' war in Afghanistan, what my Russian-speaking friends admit was their Vietnam.
Or Israel's occupation of Lebanon from 1982 until the IDF scampered out of a narrow strip in 2000.
It's worth asking if any of the people leading these countries have learned from their great mistakes.
The US presents a case of Obama's fumbling about face, or nearly 180 degree turn from interventions for the sake of opposition to Communism (Vietnam), dictatorship (Iraq), or in behalf of pacifying chaos or democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also agonizes after every mass shooting in one or another part of his country. On this matter, he seems to recognize his impotence.
The US record is not all bad. Aside from World War II and the remaking of Germany and Japan, the Korean war and a great deal of foreign aid and tutelage paid off in the decent country of South Korea, with an impressive economy and powerhouse technology .
We might quarrel about the record of the USSR in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Soviets were not gentle with rebellions in the midst of the Cold War, but when their empire collapsed they departed peacefully, leaving behind substantial infrastructure and many well educated people. There remain large ethnic Russian populations in several of the former republics. Those in Ukraine have been most problematic for their non-Russian neighbors, and the Baltic Republics are nervous.
Obama's claim of learning about the follies of excessive reliance on force has gone too far. His obsession with democracy and diplomacy is misplaced when directed to the Muslim countries of the Middle East. His reluctance to use military power is understandable, but also appears to be tilted too far in the direction of isolationism. That does not sit well with his preaching decency and trying to influence others. He gains little more than ridicule, and loses credibility. He has cried wolf too often, speaking aggressively but acting timidly. Moreover, his own country ain't all that much of a decent place, as people of his color are quick to explain.
Israel has learned from its mistake in Lebanon. Occupation of a hostile population is the last thing it wants. The Second Lebanon War, operations in the West Bank in response to the Second Intifada and several times in Gaza showed a strategy of severe punishment against aggression and early withdrawal. Currently Israelis leaders are trying to deal with what had been called the intifada of stones until a recent spate of killing Jews. Officials are using increased police actions, and IDF actions, jail time for stone throwers and financial penalties for the parents of juveniles.
Especially pressing is the question whether Russia has learned from its costly adventure in Afghanistan.
Initial signs may bother Barack Obama and other liberal Westerners, but are encouraging from a perspective of Russian national interests. Putin may be pursuing narrow, well-defined goals. Unlike George W. Bush or Barack Obama who promoted aspirations of remaking large swaths of territory with foreign cultures. He went into--or sent Russian-speaking proxies into--nearby areas of Ukraine that had been under Russian control only two decades earlier, and has now aligns himself with a willing and needy partner in Syria. Indications are that he does not want to pacify all of what had been Syria, but only those parts that his Alawi partner can control, and that provide the setting for Russian military bases.
There are expressions and denials, both from Russian sources, about Putin's intentions of extending his military actions into Iraq. History suggests that the more he bites, the more serious the indigestion. He may succeed in drawing in Barack Obama, creating something like a Western-Islamic alliance that dragged down the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, as well as being a poor long term investment for the US.
Mahmoud Abbas' most recent performance at the United Nations suggests that the Palestinians are--among people relevant to Israel--the furthest from learning anything due to their experience. The pathos of his claims may attract those not inclined to recognize what was in the Oslo Accords, have not paid attention to the prominent sources of violence since 1948, or the recent commotions on the Temple Mount. The combination of Abbas' inventions of history and his continued recital of what the world must force Israel to give him suggests a man who cannot, or will not learn. He may be kept from learning due to the trap of several decades selling an ideology to his people about the history of Palestine, the rights of refugees, their monopoly of Jerusalem's holy places, and their concern for the Christians among them. Or he may be unable personally to accept the realities that are close to mirror images of what he describes.
Moreover, he continues with the same old stories when the world--and most of the Muslims--have passed on to other things. Reports are that the General Assembly was only partially filled to hear his speech, and that prominent international Arabic newspapers featured other stories on their front pages. ISIS, Syria, Russia, and actions of Saudi Arabia and Egypt against the proxies of Iran are hotter news. Polls shows that the Palestinian leadership has the support of less than one-half the population in either the West Bank or Gaza. More Arabs living in East Jerusalem say they prefer Israel to Palestine as their country.
The Palestinian accomplishment at the UN was the post-speech ceremony of raising a Palestinian flag. There was also a spate of pro-Palestinian comments by worthies of the UN and the European Union.
With all that, and $3, Mahmoud can buy a cup of coffee in the nearest Starbucks.
Several attacks, including the killing of an Israeli couple, in the presence of their four young children in the West Bank, and stabbings in the Old City of Jerusalem, took over the media from earlier parsing of Netanyahu's and Abbas' speeches at the UN, and raised the specter of changing the tone of what had been a series of non-deadly incidents.
We'll see if it morphs into another of those operations when Israelis have sought to impose learning on Palestinians.