As everyone is no doubt aware, President Trump ordered the launching of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria as a response to the Syrian regime’s deployment of nerve agents against civilians in rebel-held areas. Unsurprisingly, given the hawkish nature of the American foreign policy establishment and the unthinking machoism of the American electorate, this move by the Trump administration has been widely applauded. Indeed, even Trump critics like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and MSNBC had generally positive things to say about the strike. But this support is misplaced. Trump’s unthinking escalation will only worsen the situation, and anyone who thinks otherwise suffers from severe, debilitating amnesia.
People’s reasons for supporting these strikes are variegated and nuanced. However, three arguments, in particular, stand out. The first is an argument of deterrence by punishment. Many neoconservatives and liberal internationalists have rightfully decried the Syrian regime’s brutality. In their eyes, Trump’s missile strikes will serve to reign in the Assad regime by punishing it for its war crimes. The second argument is based on credibility. Many believe that active American leadership is needed in Syria to prop up America’s image abroad and signal to other countries that America is strong and ready to stand up to those who would transgress against the liberal order. Finally, many contend that strikes against the regime are critical in enabling a peaceful settlement to the conflict. This view posits that by weakening the regime in general, and Assad in particular, the United States can stabilize the region and help create a secure and at least somewhat democratic Syria. Of course, all of these arguments are absurd and betray a profound lack of regional understanding. Moreover, they completely ignore the lessons of countless other interventions undertaken by the United States and other great powers in the past decades. To be blunt, Trump will fail. He will fail “big league.” And his actions will only waste resources, risk American lives, and potentially further destabilize an already chaotic region.
To demonstrate why this is the case, I will review the three arguments highlighted above and explain why they are so wildly off the mark. The first argument is unpersuasive because it presupposes a massive escalation. As Thomas Schelling pointed out in the 1960’s, deterrence only works when the punishments outweigh the potential gains. A token salvo of missiles is simply not that significant a punishment when placed in the context of the Syrian civil war. Assad has effectively lost his entire country, much of his population has fled, he has been discredited on the international stage, the institutions of the Syrian state no longer exist as such, and even the Syrian military is only nominally under his control. Nevertheless, Assad continues to cling to power. If anyone seriously thinks that a few craters in an airfield are going to be the straw that breaks Assad’s back, they clearly don’t understand Syria, and they have no business commenting on American foreign policy in the Middle East. To effectively deploy a strategy of deterrence by punishment, Trump would need to order a much larger, more comprehensive bombardment strategy designed to systematically degrade regime forces and seriously imperil Assad’s ability to hold on to power. This, of course, would cost at least a few hundred billion dollars and likely risk American lives. It would also bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia – a country that has a keen interest in keeping Assad in power – risking a very dangerous escalation in the Middle East. Finally, it’s important to point out that this approach would do nothing to help the people of Syria. Trump has already made clear that he couldn’t care less about Syrians’ suffering. He was OK with them being barrel bombed, starved to death, shot by government forces, and forcibly displaced from their homes. The children whose death so moved him are the same ones that Trump refused to grant asylum. So even if Trump succeeds in stopping the gas attacks, we already know he won’t do anything to stop Assad’s other brutal methods, and thus enormous numbers of innocent civilians will continue to be slaughtered by the regime. And, even if Trump goes all the way and topples Assad, the civil war will continue to rage, and the number of dead will continue to rise.
The credibility argument is even stupider than the deterrence argument. As I have pointed out before, most scholarly research suggests that credibility is oversold. Just because the Syrian regime can get away with violence against its own civilians doesn’t mean that other countries will view the United States as weak. History is replete with examples that disprove this hypothesis. And, if we take this argument to its logical conclusion, we should also be invading South Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and every other country plagued by civil wars and oppressive regimes. Yet, unsurprisingly, nobody defending Trump’s Syria strikes is arguing that we should strike all of these other places. In short, the credibility argument is a giant con designed to scare Americans into action. Stephen Walt put it best in a column for Foreign Policy back in October:
[I]f enough Americans keep insisting that a decision not to get involved in a violent humanitarian crisis is ipso facto evidence of U.S. decline, a few gullible people may eventually believe them.
But there is in fact little or no basis for this assertion.
Why do I say so? Simple. Because like other great powers, the United States has repeatedly chosen not to intervene in many large-scale humanitarian catastrophes, but without anyone concluding that the country was growing weaker, lacked the will to defend its own interests, or was becoming a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Moreover, these previous acts of restraint did not have any significant impact on U.S. security, prosperity, or global standing; if anything, the United States was better off for having stayed out of many of these situations.
When Great Britain gave up its colonial empire in India in 1947, for example, the resulting partition of the subcontinent produced a flood of some 10 million refugees and more than a million dead in Hindu-Muslim clashes. That’s a level of suffering even worse than what we are witnessing in Syria, but the United States did not try to stop it. Washington’s failure to act did not undermine its reputation or prevent it from forming NATO, implementing containment, or building the full array of institutions and relationships with which it waged and won the Cold War. And as Gary Bass has shown in his book The Blood Telegram, the United States repeated this morally dubious policy during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, turning a blind eye to clear evidence that the Pakistani Army was engaged in the deliberate massacre of some 300,000 Bengalis while forcing 10 million to flee as refugees. Yet nobody then (or now) believes this action, however reprehensible, had much impact on America’s standing as a global power.
Similarly, when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975 (in the wake of prior U.S. interventions there) and hundreds of thousands of people perished in the “killing fields,” the United States did not act. Ironically, it was the communist government of Vietnam — our enemy throughout the Indochina Wars — that eventually intervened and drove Pol Pot and his murderous associates from power. Washington’s failure to intervene did not cause NATO to collapse, rupture U.S. alliances in Asia, or prevent America from eventually triumphing over the Soviet Union.
One could go on. The United States did little to halt right-wing bloodletting in El Salvador and Guatemala, turned a blind eye to the Argentine “dirty war” between 1976 and 1983, and openly backed Iraq during its long war with Iran (in which roughly 1 million people died). Bill Clinton famously declined to intervene to halt the Rwandan genocide in 1994, but this omission (which he later said he regretted) did not undermine America’s global position, derail Clinton’s presidency, or abbreviate the “unipolar moment.” The United States (and the rest of the major powers) has mostly stayed out of the series of wars that have repeatedly engulfed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps 5 million people died as a result of those wars, yet no one is suggesting that this failure has compromised its moral standing or international position.
The United States can and should do more to help alleviate the suffering of Syrian civilians. Accepting refugees, providing aid and financial assistance to southern European countries being swamped by asylum seekers, and using diplomatic pressure to limit wanton acts of Russian aggression would all be good first steps. But lobbing a few missiles into Syria for the sake of “looking credible” is an utterly moronic approach to foreign policy.
The final argument in support of Trump’s missile attacks – that by weakening the regime the U.S. can promote stability – is as misguided as the other two defenses of Trump’s actions. Airpower and missile strikes alone have never been sufficient to win the peace. Back in the 1990s, NATO used airpower to limit the civil wars in the Balkans. However, since then, European countries have had to maintain continuous deployments of ground troops to act as regional peacekeepers. It’s been almost 25 years, and yet European soldiers are still trapped in the Balkans. And the countries of the former Yugoslavia are far more stable and peaceful than Syria! It’s much the same in Iraq today: The American military had no trouble in smashing apart the regime of Saddam Hussein and defeating its military, but it has largely been incapable of creating a stable, democratic government to replace the Hussein dictatorship. Every time American policymakers announce victory in Iraq, they are inevitably embarrassed by surges in sectarian violence, the emergence of violence insurgencies, or, in recent years, the creation of a terrorist state. It’s been almost 15 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the country is still a tender box (though progress is apparent). How people think the U.S. can nation build Syria when it has no civil society, no state institutions, and no group with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is beyond me.
Not only are the arguments for intervention weak, but the potential costs of getting further embroiled in Syria are high indeed. As I already mentioned, Russia is heavily invested in Syria and has strong reasons for supporting Assad, as he leases a crucial naval base to the Russians. A concerted U.S. attack on the regime, therefore, puts the U.S. at odds with Russia, a nuclear-armed state with a history of recklessly aggressive actions. Indeed, it was recently reported that a Russian frigate has been detected on a course toward the American task force in the region. Overcommitting to Syria also risks sucking up resources that could be deployed to more important regions of the world. With North Korea looking increasingly scary, Russia continuing to aggressively posture in eastern Europe, and China disrupting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the U.S. cannot afford to get dragged into another endless campaign in the Middle East. U.S. equipment and soldiers have already been severely degraded by the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. So now is the time to invest in modernization and improve U.S. readiness, not mindlessly jump into another unresolvable conflict. I was critical of Hillary Clinton’s proposed policies toward Syria, and I was hoping that for all his deficiencies, at least Trump might keep the country out of another stupid Middle Eastern war. After all, he lambasted Clinton’s hawkish tendencies and decried her plans for the Middle East. I see that I was wrong. Trump is a complete hypocrite who has no idea what he is doing. Frankly, that is understandable given his complete and utter lack of qualifications. What is particularly frustrating is that the people who should know better – experienced journalists, foreign policy professionals, and military strategists – largely seem to have fallen into the same trap that Trump has, and that is inexcusable.
Yes, America has an obligation to help those suffering under Assad’s brutality. It does not, however, have a responsibility to jump into another war that it simply cannot win.