Hall of Mirrors in Syria

by Victor Davis Hanson

Syria is weird for reasons that transcend even the bizarre situation of bombing an abhorrent Bashar al-Assad who was bombing an abhorrent ISIS — as we de facto ally with Iran, the greater strategic threat, to defeat the more odious, but less long-term strategic threat, ISIS.

Trump apparently hit a Syrian airfield to express Western outrage over the likely Syrian use of chemical weapons. Just as likely, he also sought to remind China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea that he is unpredictable and not restrained by self-imposed cultural, political, and ethical bridles that seemed to ensure that Obama would never do much over Chinese and Russian cyber-warfare, or Iranian interception of a U.S. warship or the ISIS terror campaign in the West or North Korea’s increasingly creepy and dangerous behavior.

But the strike also raised as many questions as it may have answered.

Is Trump saying that he can send off a few missiles anywhere and anytime rogues go too far? If so, does that willingness to use force enhance deterrence? (probably); does it also risk further escalation to be effective? (perhaps); and does it solve the problem of an Assad or someone similar committing more atrocities? (no).

Was the reason we hit Assad, then, because he is an especially odious dictator and kills his own, or that the manner in which he did so was cruel and barbaric (after all, ISIS burns, drowns, and cuts apart its victims without much Western reprisals until recently)? Or is the reason instead that he used WMD, and since 1918 with a few exceptions (largely in the Middle East), “poison” gas has been a taboo weapon among the international community? (Had Assad publicly beheaded the same number who were gassed, would we have intervened?)

Do we continue to sort of allow ISIS to fight it out with Syria/Iran/Hezbollah in the manner of our shrug during the Iran-Iraq War and in the fashion until Pearl Harbor that we were okay with the Wehrmacht and the Red Army killing each other en masse for over five months in Russia? Or do we say to do so cynically dooms innocents in a fashion that they are not quite as doomed elsewhere, or at least not doomed without chance of help as is true in North Korea?

Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Syria, deriding the Iraq War, and questioning the Afghan effort. Does his sudden strike signal a Jacksonian effort to hit back enemies if the mood comes upon us — and therefore acceptable to his base as a sort of one-off, don’t-tread-on-me hiss and rattle?

Or does the strike that was so welcomed by the foreign-policy establishment worry his supporters that Trump is now putting his suddenly neocon nose in someone’s else’s business? And doing so without congressional authorizations or much exegesis?

Does the Left trash Trump for using force or keep quiet, given the ostensible humanitarian basis for the strike, and the embarrassing contrast with Obama, whose reset with Russia led to inviting Putin into the Middle East to solve the WMD problem that we could not, and which Obama and Susan Rice not long ago assured us was indeed solved by our de facto friend at the time Putin?

These dilemmas, apart from Obama’s prior confusion about Syria and Russia, arise in part because Trump never thought it wise or necessary to resolve contradictions in Trumpism — especially at what point the long overdue need to restore U.S. respect and deterrence to end “lead from behind” appeasement becomes overseas entanglements not commensurate with Trump’s “America First” assurances. At some point, does talking and tweeting toughly (“bomb the sh** out of ISIS”) require a Tomahawk missile to retain credibility? And does “Jacksonianism” still allow blowing some stuff up, but not doing so at great cost and for the ideals of consensual government rather than immediate U.S. security?

Most likely for now, Trump’s strike resembles Reagan’s 1986 Libyan bombing that expressed U.S. outrage over Libyan support for then recent attacks on Americans in Berlin. But Reagan’s dramatic act (in pursuit of U.S. interests, not international norms) did not really stop Moammar Qaddafi’s support for terrorists (cf. the 1988 likely Libyan-inspired retaliatory Lockerbie bombing) or do much else to muzzle Qaddafi.

About all we can say, then, about Trump’s action was that he felt like it was overdue — or like a high-school friend once put to me after unexpectedly unloading on a school bully who daily picked on weaklings, “It seemed a good idea at the time.”

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