Donald Trump spent the presidential campaign insisting that
Washington’s first duty was to protect the American people.
His vision was inconsistent and incomplete, but still sensible
enough to horrify Washington’s bipartisan war party.
Almost exactly a year ago he gave a major address to the Center
for the National Interest in which he criticized nation-building
and especially the disastrous Iraq and Libya interventions:
“After losing thousands of lives and spending trillions of
dollars, we are in far worst shape in the Middle East than ever,
He also promised to step back from confrontation from Russia.
“I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with
Russia from a position of strength [not] only is possible, [but]
absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible
cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon,” he
He applied both principles to Syria. He insisted that the
Islamic State was America’s primary objective in Syria. He
said President Barack Obama should not intervene even if Damascus
crossed the latter’s chemical weapons “red line.”
And candidate Trump urged cooperation with Moscow in Syria. He
offered a radical but welcome departure from Obama administration
policy. Until last week he and his appointees followed this line.
For instance, on March 30 UN Ambassador Nikki Haley declared:
“Our priority is not to focus on getting Assad
Candidate Trump went on to make a promise extraordinary for
Washington, that “unlike other candidates for the presidency,
war and aggression will not be my first instinct.” Warrior
wannabe Republican and Democratic leaders sniffed their
disapproval, but he well captured the frustrations of the American
people who do the paying and dying in America’s many
conflicts. Just last week he declared that “I’m not,
and I don’t want to be, the president of the
Alas, less than three months after taking office for President
Trump has begun channeling Hillary Clinton on foreign policy.
Despite almost six years of war and the deaths of several hundred
thousand people in Syria, he apparently was not aware that the
conflict had resulted in extraordinary human hardship. So after
seeing what he called “horrible” photos of some of the
scores of dead from an apparent Syrian chemical attack the
president ordered strikes on a Syrian military base. And that may
not be all: his aides talked about taking further military
Candidate Donald Trump
got Syria right. Nothing in the conflict warrants Washington’s
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially said “steps are
under way” to develop a new international coalition to oust
Assad: “it would seem that there would be no role for him to
govern the Syrian people,” he announced last Thursday. Over
the weekend, however, he backpedaled, insisting that the
administration’s focus on the Islamic State was unchanged,
since a political resolution would require “participation of
the regime and the support of their allies.” He also
expressed his hope “that we can work with Russia and use
their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout
In contrast, Ambassador Haley spewed fire and brimstone while
seeming to push aside her nominal boss. Peace is impossible
“as long as Assad remains in power,” she insisted:
“we’ve got to go and make sure that we actually see a
leader that will protect his people.” She allowed that
“Getting Assad out is not the only priority”: The U.S.
also has “to get out the Iranian influence,” which is
necessary “for peace and stability in the area.”
Moreover, Haley insisted that Moscow and Tehran “now have
to answer for” their support for the Assad regime. When it
comes to sanctions against the two states nothing “is off the
table.” She promised that the president “won’t
stop here.” Indeed, if “he needs to do more, he will do
more.” The administration will exercise “strong
leadership,” whatever that means, she insisted.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster implausibly contended
that there was no difference between the positions taken by
Tillerson and Haley: “There has to be a degree of
simultaneous activity, as well as sequencing the defeat of ISIS
first.” He added: “the resolution of the conflict will
entail both of the elements that you’re talking about.”
In short, the U.S. must both destroy the Islamic state and
overthrow Assad, but do so in the right order.
Critics of Donald Trump exhibited a strange new respect for him
after he launched the missiles. He had acted
“presidential,” said one. Apparently nothing wins
acclaim in Washington like killing foreigners in the name of doing
good. No matter the disastrous consequences of Washington’s
oft-attempted global social engineering.
The war lobby also pushed back against Secretary
Tillerson’s apparent retreat. For instance, the irrepressible
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has yet to find a war that he
doesn’t want others to fight, claimed “regime change is
now the policy of the Trump administration. That’s at least
what I’ve heard.” The equally war-happy Sen. Marco
Rubio criticized the secretary of state for focusing on ISIS.
“You cannot have a stable Syria without jihadist elements on
the ground with Bashar al-Assad in power.”
The ivory tower commentariat, too, went into full war cry. Its
members are never so eloquent as when demanding that others go to
war. Argued Briton Piers Morgan: Assad will “keep doing this
until somone stops him. WHO will stop him?” Certainly not
Morgan. That obviously is the American military’s job. But
journalists and policy analysts will enthusiastically cheer on the
sacrifice by U.S. personnel.
Candidate Donald Trump got Syria right. Nothing in the conflict
warrants Washington’s involvement. Last week he declared that
as president he now has “responsibility” for Syria.
Actually, he is responsible for America, the liberty, security, and
prosperity of its people. And that requires staying out of
unnecessary wars, like Syria.
Syria’s fate has little impact on U.S. security. During
the Cold War the regime, headed by Assad’s father, was allied
with the Soviet Union. After being defeated by Israel in the 1973
Yom Kippur War, Damascus retreated to a cold war with Israel. Syria
meddled in neighboring Lebanon, but with little impact on anyone
else. Despite Syria’s friendship with Iran, the latter
remained well behind the military capabilities of Saudi Arabia and
its Sunni coalition.
Even if Syria mattered more it would not justify intervention by
the U.S. Policymakers have turned military action into a first
resort, but war is different in kind and not just in degree from
other policy options. It should be reserved to protect America,
which is not threatened by the Syrian civil war.
Today Syria is a wreck and has international significance
primarily as a battlefield. Even if Iran and Russia are able to
“save” Assad fils, the regime will be a ghost,
a remnant of what it once was. Indeed, the Assad government is a
costly investment: it is wasting its allies’ lives and
materiel while generating international hostility toward them.
There’s no reason for Washington to join the fight.
War advocates tend to stretch the concept of “vital”
interests to nothingness. For instance, President Trump said it is
in the “vital national security interest of the United States
to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical
weapons,” even though they weren’t going anywhere. In
contrast to nuclear and biological weapons, chemical agents
typically are not mass killers.
President Trump declared that “These heinous actions by
the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.” Chemical weapons are
awful, but not obviously worse than bombs or even well-aimed
bullets. Treating death by chemicals as so much worse than death by
other weapons makes a moral mountain out of a policy molehill. The
difference does not justify Washington joining the war.
Secretary Tillerson argued that the potential of insurgents
grabbing chemical weapons posed an “existential” threat
to America, but ISIS already is believed to possess them. Anyway,
Tillerson’s scenario is implausible at best: smuggling them
in and using them would be extraordinarily difficult. Rep. Trent
Franks declared “making it clear that innocent victims of
terrorism and evil do have at least one friend in this world”
is a “vital American interest,” which, if true, means
both nothing and everything are vital interests.
Of course, Syria is a humanitarian tragedy. But it is a civil
war, not genocide. Most of the casualties have been combatants, not
civilians. The regime may kill more prodigiously, but primarily as
a result of its greater capability rather than lesser morality.
While there undoubtedly are liberal, democratic insurgents, there
is a surplus of bad guys on both sides.
Indeed, the conflict features a who’s who of
America’s dubious friends, frenemies, adversaries, and
enemies all at each other’s throats: Assad government, Sunni
jihadists and terrorists, Iranian-supported militias, Russian,
Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish forces, Kurdish fighters, immoderate
“moderates,” and more. Last month Washington deployed
U.S. forces to separate Turkish-backed and Kurdish forces, which
had clashed. The most important difference among them for
Washington is that many of Assad’s opponents are interested
in killing Americans and other people outside of Syria, most
notably the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.
And there should be no illusions about who would do the fighting
if Washington jumped into the Syrian war. Noted Aaron David Miller
and Richard Sokolsky of the Woodrow Wilson International Center and
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, respectively:
“one of the more stubborn realities of the Syrian conflict is
that America’s Sunni Arab partners—with the exception
of small Jordan and vulnerable Lebanon—have talked tough but
done little in the way of absorbing refugees or contributing forces
to the actual fight against ISIS.”
The desire to end the suffering is laudable, but impractical.
The U.S. has no simple means to bring liberal order out of brutal
chaos. Air power alone is unlikely to defeat Assad: “boots on
the ground,” as the saying goes, would be necessary. And
ousting Assad would not end the fighting. Instead, it would just
set off a new combat round in a situation dramatically, even
exponentially, more complicated than previous conflicts.
Moreover, given the debacles in Iraq and Libya, Washington could
not simply walk away after defenestrating Assad. Imagine the ISIS
flag rising over Damascus and angry victors slaughtering Alawites,
Christians, and other religious minorities. Even in
“victory” Washington would find a host of new tasks to
perform: defeat radical forces, protect victimized minorities,
create stable governance, eliminate Iranian and Russian influence,
mediate between Turks and Kurds, and whatever other fantasies
filled the minds of Washington’s social engineers. The
likelihood that the Trump administration could create stable democratic rule Syria is even less than the chance it could do so
in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
Washington’s humanitarian record is a bit threadbare. Its
Mideast allies include Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey,
all of which have dubious human rights records. America’s
support for Riyadh’s horrid war in Yemen makes Washington
complicit in the death of thousands of civilians who have done
nothing against the U.S. or its people. Consistency may be the
hobgoblin of small minds, but it still matters in foreign policy,
especially when the president of the United States reportedly is
basing his decisions on casualty photos.
While there’s no good reason for Washington to jump into
the Syrian imbroglio, there are several powerful reasons to stay
out. To start, the president has no legal authority to attack
Syria—the post-9/11 congressional authorization obviously
doesn’t apply and Damascus has not attacked or threatened
America or even an American ally. The Constitution places the
decision to initiate hostilities with Congress, not the president.
Indeed, candidate Trump urged President Barack Obama to get
legislative authority before bombing Syria. In 2013 the former
declared: “Obama needs Congressional approval.”
War advocates ignore the obvious, that attacking Assad
inevitably empowers the Islamic State and other radical Islamists.
Many so-called moderates do not appear to be very moderate, and
they have not demonstrated the ability to defeat Assad as well as
assorted jihadist movements. Ironically, they have been targeted by
Damascus because the prospect of Western support made them
particularly dangerous to the Assad regime.
Moreover, moving toward war in Syria sets up a great power
confrontation with Russia, the one nation with a nuclear force
which allows it to go head-to-head against America. Sen. John
McCain, perhaps the Senate’s most belligerent member,
dismissed the danger of such a clash: they “will not want a
confrontation with the United States of America. And if they do,
they will lose, because we are superior to them
However, with far more at stake, Moscow is willing to spend and
risk far more. Last October candidate Trump warned against starting
“a shooting war in Syria, in conflict with a nuclear-armed
Russia that could very well lead to World War III.”
Additionally, the Putin government can help advance or hinder U.S.
policy objectives in Europe, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea.
One need not like Vladimir Putin to realize the importance of
having a working relationship with its government, which, despite
its aggressiveness on Europe’s periphery, nowhere threatens
fundamental American security interests.
Confronting Tehran in Syria undercuts the possibility of
liberalization in Iran. Along with discouraging the Islamic
republic from developing nuclear weapons, the Joint Comprehensive
Plan of Action, or nuclear accord, increased the likelihood of
internal political change. Expanding economic opportunities for
younger Iranians gives them a greater incentive to fight for
political change. Unfortunately, continuing U.S. restrictions have
impeded such a transformation. Creating a security crisis would
make positive change even less likely. Having a friendly regime in
Damascus matters far more to neighboring Tehran than distant
America, so the clerical regime is willing to sacrifice much more
than Washington to “win” in Syria.
Finally, the president’s potential diversion back into the
Middle East likely is causing high-fives all over Beijing.
President Trump came into office challenging the People’s
Republic of China on a range of issues. He’s already appeared
to back down and move toward a more normal relationship. But
Chinese President Xi Jinping probably never imagined even in his
fondest dreams that yet another Washington administration would
rush toward into yet another no-win Mideast war—and so early
after taking office.
President Trump seems to know better than to entangle America
another Middle Eastern imbroglio. After being criticized for his
newly discovered militarist instincts, he proclaimed: “We are
not going into Syria.” Three years ago he opposed demands
that President Barack Obama bomb the same regime for the use of the
same weapons. But after seeing “horrible” photos, he
launched a barrage of cruise missiles. On that basis, the president
easily could end up taking America into even more wars in coming
Syria is a human tragedy of extraordinary proportions. But
normally the U.S. “goes not abroad in search of monsters to
destroy,” proclaimed Secretary of State John Quincy Adams a
century ago. Sometimes war is necessary. But only very rarely.
Washington’s overriding duty is to safeguard America, not
remake the world. That principle is only likely to grow more
important over time.
Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special
assistant to President Ronald Reagan.