Mr. Trump Goes to War
April 11, 2017
Stephen Eric Bronner / Reader Supported News
Commentary: "America first!" was the slogan that helped elect Donald Trump president of the United States in 2016. He was insistent that engagement in conflicts abroad should occur only when the American "national interest" was explicitly being served. After waffling on the invasion of Iraq, Trump spent the Obama years warning against heightened involvement in the Middle East and, as late as March 30, 2017, Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley could state that deposing Assad was "no longer a priority."
Trump Goes to War
Stephen Eric Bronner / Reader Supported News
(April 10, 2017) -- "America first!" was the slogan that helped elect Donald Trump president of the United States in 2016. He was insistent that engagement in conflicts abroad should occur only when the American "national interest" was explicitly being served.
After waffling on the invasion of Iraq, Trump spent the Obama years warning against heightened involvement in the Middle East and, as late as March 30, 2017, Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley could state that deposing Assad was "no longer a priority."
The new president also maintained that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be left to the combatants, thereby keeping in place the existing imbalance of power that favored America's staunch ally: Israel. Determining the character of the national interest is, admittedly, difficult.
Many shifting factors are involved. Ultimately, however, it privileges cold realism over the idealism associated with human rights. To this extent, indeed, there is a certain minimal logic to using the national interest as a criterion for conducting foreign policy.
But there was no logic in Trump's shocking about-face of April 7, 2017, following Syrian president Bashar Assad's alleged Sarin attack that cost the lives of more than 100 men, women, and children living in rebel territory.
The American president had apparently seen television news about the atrocity before abruptly deciding to launch dozens of Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airfield in an attack killing yet another nine civilians, including four children.
Some suspicions exist regarding Assad's guilt, and Trump was apparently warned about rushing to judgment by his own director of the CIA (Robert Parry, Consortiumnews.com, April 8, 2017). Whether the Syrian president was culpable or not, however, Trump's response made no sense morally, tactically, or strategically.
The bombing may have given a boost to his floundering presidency; it deflected attention from the many scandals (including "Russia-gate") plaguing his administration; and it will undoubtedly be used to justify Trump's demand for a 10% increase in defense spending. Nevertheless, serving the president's interest is not the same as serving the national interest.
Bombing the Syrian airfield was an impulsive act driven by thoughts of revenge and the desire to "do something." No mainstream commentator has provided a meaningful practical justification for the attack, specified what it will accomplish, or explained its beneficial implications for shortening the Syrian civil war or helping the battle against ISIS.
Still, liberal-hawk leaders of the Democratic Party like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (again) fell into line. The support given Trump was reminiscent of that given George W. Bush in the early stages of the Iraq war. It seems that little has been learned.
Of course, the "facts on the ground" remain unchanged. Those rebelling against Assad's regime are still fractured into competing factions and the strongest is still al-Qaeda and its offshoot the al-Nusra front. There is not a single national leader among them and, consequently, the United States still lacks a viable domestic ally.
Bonds between Assad and his benefactors, Iran and Russia, remain intact. And Trump's action doesn't help the 500,000 Syrians killed in this worthless war or the millions more that have been displaced.
Completely reversing policy because yet another hundred people tragically died in a chemical attack is absurd. The American bombing hangs in the abstract. The link between tactics and strategy is still missing.
Once again, the United States has unilaterally appointed itself the world's policeman. The double standard that allows the United States to intervene arbitrarily, where other states may not, has again been employed.
"Mission creep," or the gradual slide from military intervention to regime change to nation building, which marked Bush's Afghani and Iraqi policies, again looms large in Syria and, just as with his predecessor, Trump has no exit strategy. In fact, he has no strategy at all.
A single strike is neither a "proportional response" (whatever that means) nor a tactic that will affect Assad's conduct. If anything, it will strengthen the Syrian president's bonds with Iran and drive a wedge between Putin and Trump. Indeed, this doesn't bode well.
Trump's right-wing populist rhetoric has already alienated leaders of the European Union like Angela Merkel, and his recent meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Peng, has not decreased tensions.
Trump's perverse version of Disraeli's "splendid isolation" is anything but splendid. His few remaining friends in the Middle East include Israel plus the authoritarian and deeply reactionary Sunni nations like Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and the Syrian rebels.
No less than ISIS, indeed, the latter poses a genuine danger to the Alawites, Christians, Shia, and other groups (now protected by Assad) whose interests demand recognition in any new Syrian state.
Trump's action privileges deposing the Syrian tyrant over battling ISIS, whose own barbarian agents have butchered about 200,000 people while engineering countless terror attacks in Europe and the United States.
Shia states and organizations have been the most effective forces fighting ISIS and, given the rivalries within the Sunni opposition, a new Syrian civil war is a distinct possibility after this one ends.
Gandhi once famously stated that "an eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind."
Neither humanitarian values nor interests have been served by Trump's actions. American officials have already directed threats of military strikes against North Korea and Iran. The prospects for intensified involvement in Iraq have also been raised. Consensual support for this attack only strengthens the temptation of a president desperately seeking approval to take the next step.
Americans rally around the flag when the country goes to war -- any war. But sustained support for policies that don't serve the national interest have been difficult to sustain. It's worth remembering Iraq. Trump's show of force in Syria is exactly the kind of action that the American public initially applauds -- and then lives to regret.
Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. His most recent works are The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press) and The Bitter Taste of Hope: Ideals, Ideologies and Interests in the Age of Obama (SUNY Press).
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