About a year ago, when President Trump first ordered airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons in its civil war, I made the case for not jumping to the conclusion that the chief executive had betrayed his promises to carry out an America First-style foreign policy. This weekend of course came a second set of Syria strikes, with the same declared objective, and I still believe that they don’t herald a new burst of (futile, if not counterproductive) interventionism in the Middle East. My main reason: Mr. Trump’s own words in announcing the attacks.
At the same time, don’t think that I’m incredibly confident that I’m right.
First, the reasons for some confidence about where Syria policy is headed. According to the President, he’s under no illusion that either limited American uses of military force or more comprehensive policies will cure what ails Syria or the completely dysfunctional and failed Middle Eastern neighborhood in which it lives. In his words, not only is he opposed to “an indefinite presence in Syria.” He declared more broadly:
“Looking around our very troubled world, Americans have no illusions. We cannot purge the world of evil or act everywhere there is tyranny.
“No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East. It’s a troubled place. We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place.”
In other words, Mr Trump is rejecting the globalist premises of his post-World War II predecessors. Reflecting the ostensible (and, it seems, eternal) lessons of appeasing fascist dictators during the 1930s, they have held that aggression or turmoil or instability or (fill in the upsetting development of your choice) anywhere are all too likely to escalate into crises that will eventually threaten the United States.
As a result, American forces repeatedly have been ordered into backwater conflicts with no intrinsic potential to affect U.S. security, prosperity, or freedom in any tangible way. But given the consequent globalist resolve both to nip these problems in the bud, as well as to address their underlying causes, they have demonstrated plenty of potential to mire the country into a series of costly quagmires.
Therefore, even though Mr. Trump – like former President Barack Obama before him – has described the airstrikes as essential for upholding a global norm (decades-long international bans on the “ghastly,” “barbaric,” and “brutal” use of chemical weapons), he seems to believe that this military practice can be isolated not only from whatever deep-rooted economic, social, and cultural failures have produced the strife that has occasioned their use, but from that consequent conflict itself.
But I’m worried about three big caveats. First, as long as the Syria civil war lasts, the more apparent it will become that limited actions like airstrikes won’t prevent atrocities like chemical weapons use, and the greater the temptation for more ambitious measures judged likelier to achieve their aims – but also capable of triggering a conflict with Russia, which like the United States has officials and military personnel in Syria.
Second, although the President has portrayed Syria as a conflict from which the United States can soon walk away, this analysis depends on claims that deserve major skepticism, to say the least – like the final defeat of ISIS (and, by extension, all jihadist terrorism?), and the possible emergence of a regional coalition of Sunni Arab states that “can ensure that Iran does not profit from the eradication of ISIS” and spread its influence across the Middle East.
After decades in which the American people have been told (rightly) that the region can endanger their security (via that terrorism) and their prosperity (via its gargantuan oil supplies), these positions will invariably look like naive hopes if the President’s rosy scenario doesn’t pan out. In fact, they could well spur calls for deeper and more dangerous U.S. involvement – even from an understandably skeptical public.
What’s of course supremely ironic about that dilemma is that important elements of the Trump domestic programs look like much more promising ways to shield the nation from Middle East threats than the globalist strategy he’s partly embraced of “fighting ’em there so we don’t face ’em here,” and promoting prosperity by trying to control a dizzying array of events abroad.
As I’ve written repeatedly, it makes much more sense to deal with terrorism by “keeping them out of here” through the kinds of serious border security programs the President endorses, and to continue breaking the region’s strong choke hold on global energy supplies by supporting the production revolution that American energy companies have engineered at home.
The third reason for concerns about a more interventionist Trump foreign policy has to do with his appointment of John R. Bolton as his national security adviser. Bolton, a former (interim) U.S. UN ambassador during George W. Bush’s presidency, is a strong, lifelong supporter of using the American military to solve all manner of national security challenges abroad.
It’s true that, unlike most globalists, Bolton seems to believe that these challenges will stay solved without any kind of nation-building- or democracy promotion-type follow-on. Hence his unrepentant support for the Bush administration overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – without a serious plan for the war’s aftermath. In all, it’s worrisome for believers in an America First approach to foreign policy that Bolton’s often trigger-happy voice could often be the last one Mr. Trump hears before making a momentous strategic decision.
Bottom-line: The slope leading from America’s current approach to Syria and the Middle East’s turmoil in general to another major war isn’t completely slippery. But it’s hard to be confident that President Trump’s footing is completely secure, either.