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Friday night’s missile strike on Syria will prove to be a mistake in almost every possible way. Ostensibly launched to punish and deter the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, the attack makes peace in the region and in the world less likely.
As a purely political matter, the U.S.-led attack, which was a joint effort with Great Britain and France, has deeply alienated many of President Trump’s core supporters. Trump won the presidency through a nationalist platform, the three legs of which include fairer trade, more stringent immigration enforcement, and an “America First” foreign policy. Until Trump, the consensus among both parties’ leadership fostered ruinous free trade policies, a mass influx of low-skill Third World immigrants into the country, and maintenance of U.S. dominance on the international scene. Trump campaigned on revising all three policies to serve the interests of the American people; this included greater restraint abroad after 15 years of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
A nationalist foreign policy earned Trump a great number of critics among the national security establishment and its associated agencies, including the CIA, FBI, the Pentagon, and the National Security Agency. But implementing such a policy is exactly what Trump’s supporters elected him to do. While some were encouraged by his unconventional in-your-face style (and others steeled themselves to look past it), Trump’s voters supported him because they support a more nationalist agenda—an agenda that is popular with the American people. It counseled, among other things, avoiding nation-building, gratuitous “humanitarian” wars,” and greater discretion with the use of force more generally.
After Friday’s raid, many stalwart supporters (including such varied figures as Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, and Michael Savage) expressed extreme displeasure and a loss of confidence in the president, Trump’s more outspoken supporters on the Right have defended him vigorously from unfair, false, and scurrilous attacks. But they did not join a personality cult. Trump has very few friends in Washington, D.C. He succeeded in part because of the uncoordinated, grassroots support and free media he received from his voters. If he alienates them, he may find himself completely isolated.
Friday’s action earned him some temporary praise from the Graham-McCain-Rubio wing of the Republican Party, as well as from the interventionist cohort on CNN. But, much like the support for his strike on Syria this time last year, it won’t last. Trump remains mostly opposed to the establishment and its goals, which extend far beyond Syria or the president’s stated aim of punishing belligerents for using chemical weapons. Their goal is globalism—the exact opposite of America First.
Risk of War with Russia
The attack also unnecessarily provokes confrontation with Russia. While there are encouraging signs Friday’s attack was limited, and that the U.S.-led coalition took pains to avoid hitting Russian personnel, it nonetheless changes the posture of our intervention in Syria from one of tacit cooperation with Russia and the Assad regime against ISIS, to one of the United States fighting both ISIS and its enemies simultaneously.
Russia has been Syria’s ally since the end of the Soviet Union, and it is fighting for a prosaic and limited goal: to enhance its own power and prestige by assisting the Syrian government in crushing a rebellion made up of extremist Sunnis who will, if successful, murder Christians, Shias, moderate Sunnis, and the Alawite minority.
The Assad regime has been painted by critics as brutal and authoritarian, and it is in certain respects. Yet much of life is about choosing between lesser evils. A cursory review of images from Damascus shows a country with a diversity of religions and lifestyles, and others marks of a flourishing, normal, and sane country. The ISIS caliphate, by contrast, revelled in torturing and murdering its enemies: burning prisoners alive, or drowning them, or beheading infidels and apostates in public squares.
Russia is not as powerful as the United States, and thus it has fewer foreign policy commitments. But it is a nuclear power, and it has shown willingness to stand by its friends, such as in Serbia and Ossetia. If an American attack significantly hurt the Russian military, the prospects of escalation—including nuclear escalation—are conceivable. What would happen, for example, if Russia sunk an American cruiser? Or if the U.S. did the same to a Russian vessel? It could mean all-out war, and what does “all-out war” mean when the world’s two biggest nuclear powers are involved?
While I have no doubts about Putin’s ability to be Machiavellian—ruthless even—in support of his country’s interests, he has shown tremendous restraint in the face of a concerted effort to demonize him and weaken his country. Would it be wise to find out what are the outer limits of that restraint?
America and Russia share certain common interests, including the elimination of ISIS. It would be better to build on these common interests and find space for cooperation and friendlier relations. As Trump said during the campaign, “if the United States got along with Russia, would that be so bad?” Russia showed an ability to cooperate after 9/11 by allowing U.S. forces access to bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The alternative is what we see now: a tense, risky situation, where U.S. attempts to remain the “sole superpower” frequently collide with the local concerns of Russia and China. Contrary to its self-professed sophistication, this strategy appears to lead not to world peace, but necessarily to global conflict.
Doubtful Claims of an Assad-Regime Chemical Attack
The attack was based on flimsy evidence. There has been no investigation of the events at the site of the attack, which remains in rebel territory. More important, common sense suggests Assad did not do this; after all, a week earlier Trump had said America would be leaving Syria, because ISIS essentially had been defeated. The “Assad gas attack” followed almost immediately, which brought on the U.S. counterattack.
The timing is incredibly suspicious. Since the United States is both opposed to ISIS and nominally opposed to the Assad regime, isn’t it in Assad’s interest to refrain from gross provocations so as to encourage us to leave? While I do not accept the narrative that Assad is an evil “animal,” even if he were, is he also an irrational animal that will do things that hurt himself and his ability to consolidate power? The United States swiftly attacked him for a gas attack last year, so why would he invite another attack? And why would a desultory bombing campaign deter him from gassing people in the future? The operation does not even make sense on its own terms.
The ability to garner domestic and international support for military action depends on trust; but we now know last year’s gas attack cannot be pinned on the Assad regime. Our Iraq intervention was marred by the disproven claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. If we squander our trust with dubious wars based on flimsy pretexts, will we be able to garner support and public trust at home and abroad when it’s truly necessary?Securing such trust is even more doubtful today than it was in 2003.
Weakening the Assad Regime is Not Humanitarian
In all likelihood, Friday’s action prolongs the war. U.S. intervention in Syria goes back to 2011. Obama, believing the “Arab Spring” was the start of a regional turn toward democracy and liberalism, gave moral support to protesters in Egypt, military support to rebels in Libya, and rhetorical and then military support to Syria’s rebels. In the first two cases, the regimes were changed, but the result was civil war and chaos. Assad, however, hasn’t budged. The war has raged on and more than 400,000 people have died, but the Assad regime has slowly regained control. Indeed, its victory now appears inevitable, as noted last month by CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Vogel.
While authoritarian regimes can be very harsh, war is almost invariably worse—especially in this case, when the choice is between a secular strongman whose chief aim is to remain in power and a group of jihadists whose violence is aimed at the utopian and totalitarian goal of a caliphate enforcing Sharia law.
At his worst, Assad has shown he will attack those who attack his government or threaten to do so; the Sunni jihadists, if successful, will attack civilization itself. The most humanitarian option in Syria today is to end the war, and the only way that will happen is when the Assad regime wins.
We Want the President We Elected Back
President Trump’s most loyal supporters, the dissident conservatives, are not pollyannaish. We are not pacifists. We are not terribly concerned with the United Nations or its pretensions of limiting U.S. power. But we are concerned with the ways U.S. foreign policy can weaken the United States, as our country learned in both Vietnam and Iraq. We learned the right lessons from these disasters, and almost all of us oppose this war.
President Trump, before he ever ran for office, recognized the unwisdom of a Syrian intervention in his extensive criticisms of Obama’s decision to side with the rebels against the Assad regime:
AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
I voted for that guy to be president. Sadly, he is morphing into the Second Coming of George W. Bush, complete with a hubristic claim of “mission accomplished.”
We can hope, like last year, this intervention is truly limited and over, and we will leave Syria altogether. But it appears every time we are ready to leave, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and Syria’s neighbor, Israel, raises the call to stay without any exit strategy. Twice, and all-too-conveniently, a chemical weapons attack materialized to grant a plausible basis to stay. Some skepticism of the provenance of these attacks, as well as the wisdom of the foreign policy establishment, are in order. After all, cui bono?