Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Donald Trump’s order last Friday to launch missile strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure has exposed the divisions among Americans over foreign policy. Some Trump supporters think the President has walked back from his America-first nationalism. Globalists of both parties agree that Bashar al Assad needed to be punished for brutally violating international conventions against chemical weapons. And the rabid anti-Trump left views the attack as a “wag-the-dog” diversion from Trump’s legal troubles.
So is there a legitimate reason for bombing Syria and possibly provoking Russian retaliation that risks dragging us deeper into the Middle East quagmire?
Many Americans, sick of a decade-and-a-half of American military presence in the region believe that “we don’t have a dog in that fight,” as the first Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker said of the brutal conflicts in the disintegrating Yugoslavia of the early nineties. Some may remember George W. Bush’s willingness to be the “world’s policeman” ––after he campaigned against “foreign policy as social work” ––when he launched two wars in the region. They voted for Donald Trump in part because he was a critic of the endless war in Iraq and the still active war in Afghanistan and their delusional nation-building aims, and vowed to put “America first.”
The problem with this understandable “pox on both their houses” attitude to foreign conflicts is that American security and interests have long been intimately bound up in a world that for more than century has been growing closer and more interdependent. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were the gruesome illustration of that reality. The attackers easily travelled by air thousands of miles from their homes, and lived freely in this country as they prepared the attacks. Armed only with box-cutters, they turned commercial airliners into the smartest of smart bombs simply by navigating them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, killing in a few hours about the same number of Americans who died in the British invasion between 1812 and 1815. At the cost of half a million dollars––less than half the cost of one cruise missile–– they struck devastating blows against history’s greatest military and economic power, onw they knew intimately from globally distributed news and entertainment, and had grown to hate because its very existence challenged orthodox premodern Islamic doctrine.
Given that our economy is inseparable from the global economy, we have no choice but to be concerned about the critical straits and canals through which global commerce travels, and the airports throughout the world through which people can reach our shores in less than a day. We also can’t ignore the numerous illiberal and autocratic regimes whose beliefs and values conflict with those of the West. The global market, as Robert Kagan put it, needs a global sheriff so that this astonishing increase in technological innovation and wealth and their global distribution is free to continue. We may not have chosen this role, we may not like or want the job, but history so far has left the U.S. as the only great power with the military capacity for keeping order, and the political beliefs and principles that ensure we will not abuse that power to oppress others.
Yet that truth does not justify the one-world idealism that believes everybody on the planet wants to live like Westerners, or to embrace Western principles and goods like political freedom, tolerance of minorities, free speech, sex equality, secularist government, an open society, and the preference for discussion, negotiation, and treaties as the way to solve conflict rather than brute force. The great diversity of ways of life and beliefs means that transnational institutions, agreements, covenants, and U.N. Security Council resolutions will always in the end be instruments of diverse and conflicting national interests. They are honored as long as they serve those interests, but abused or subverted when they don’t, especially by the more powerful nations. They are like Jonathon Swift’s laws: “cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”
The West’s military dominance in the 20th century ensured that other nations would bandwagon with the West and sign such international agreements, with the tacit proviso that they would violate them whenever necessary, even as they paid them lip-service. The history of the last century, which is littered with violated treaties and covenants, proves this obvious truth. Nor is it hard to see why. As Robert Bork pointed out, such international agreements are weak because they do not necessarily reflect a global consensus that violent aggression or wanton oath-breaking is morally beyond the pale, or a violation of common customs, or a betrayal of sincere belief in the principles on which an agreement is founded. They exist by dint of treaties that sovereign nations have the de jure right to leave, or the de facto right to violate. Thus the President’s public reason for bombing Syria, that it violated the Chemical Weapons Convention, is dubious at best, and his plea to Russia not to be tainted by its support of an “animal” like Assad is remarkably naive.
Indeed, Syria offers a perfect example of this dynamic of a superficial adherence to international covenants that facilitates violations of them. After Barack Obama issued his empty “red line” threat about Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated an empty “solution” to the problem by making Russia the authority overseeing the elimination of Assad’s stockpiles, even though it was and still is not in Russia’s geostrategic interests to disarm Assad. So we got a theatrical compliance that left Assad his weapons, and even worse, gave Russia a sanctioned entrée into the Syrian civil war. The pretense of adhering to international law gave cover to Russia’s strategic aims in the region, one of which was the continuation of Assad’s murderous regime.
Equally troubling, there is a strange incoherence in seeing an imperative to respond to the deaths of a few score civilians during a conflict that has killed several hundred thousand by means of “conventional” weapons like bombs and bullets. If we have an “obligation to protect” those brutalized by aggression, as the moralizing internationalists believe, then it’s hard to see why one kind of death is more outrageous than other kinds. This selectivity has been the fundamental weakness of international laws or obligations to prevent aggression: since we can’t intervene in every brutal conflict, the only coherent rationale for interventions is that the conflict harms or threatens our national interests and security.
If virtual isolationism is not a practical policy, and moralizing internationalism a chimera, what could justify the raids against Syria? Deterrence is frequently invoked, but it obviously didn’t work last year after the President destroyed some of Assad’s jets. Over the past year, Assad has continued to use chemical weapons on civilians. Indeed, within hours of our latest attack Assad was using high explosives and barrel-bombs to slaughter people who are just as dead or mangled as the victims of his chemical attack. Further consequences may follow. Russia and Iran for now may be blustering to save face, but there still may be some retaliation that we will then have to answer. For once a nation goes down the road of deterring a bad actor by force, it has to continue indefinitely in order to maintain its prestige. It can’t announce publicly that it is a “one-off.”
Americans traditionally do not like constant war or military interventions, particularly “humanitarian” ones. We prefer to intervene when necessary, kill the bad guys, then come back home, what Walter Russell Meade calls a “Jacksonian” foreign policy. Unfortunately, in today’s interconnected world, such conflicts are not as rare as we’d like. But we must make it clear that we will not intervene when necessary just to rush home as though the work is done, nor will we engage in conflicts and occupation of the defeated enemy in order to create liberal democracy.
Rather, we need a foreign policy similar to the “butcher and bolt” policy of the British Empire, or what Israel calls “mowing the grass.” This means when an adversary or enemy challenges our power and interests, or those of our close allies, we should use force to send a message, usually by destroying some of its military assets. We should not rationalize this action by appealing to international law, the U.N., or some fantastical common vales or principles of the mythic “international community.” We should make it clear that there is no time-certain for when we stop, rather that we will return whenever we judge it necessary. And we should do it on the principle that a sovereign nation has a right to defend itself as it sees fit, and owes accountability only to its citizens.
In the near future, bombing Syria will likely still be necessary, not just to deter Assad or change the regime into a liberal democracy, but to let all the players in the region know that the greatest military power in history is watching events in a region we deem vital to our interests, and that we will use force to remind them of our unprecedented ability to project devastating power across the globe. Such a policy will strengthen our prestige, and concentrate wonderfully the minds of our adversaries.
The only remaining question is, Will we the people of the United States be willing to pay the costs and accept the risks of such a policy?