A Quick Response to a Quick Response

Just as we were sitting down to write about the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, the news came across the internet that President Donald Trump had ordered a launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base. The wisdom of America fighting in World War I is still a matter of heated debate a century later, so of course it’s far too soon to say how that missile strike will play out.
The potential consequences of such military actions are as numerous as the trillions of possible moves in a chess game, and finding the most promising line among them requires far more serious contemplation, but the decision was apparently made with some haste. On Tuesday the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on a village caught up in the country’s seven-year-old civil war and killed scores of innocent men, women, and children, and the Trump administration immediately condemned the atrocity and blamed in the past inaction of the administration of President Barack Obama. On Wednesday Trump told the press that he was personally affected by the footage of the gassed children, and that “It is now my responsibility.” On Thursday afternoon, the 59 or so missiles were launched against the same air base where the chemical attack originated. There are time pressures in both chess and geopolitics that sometimes force players to act quickly and intuitively, but at this point there’s no apparent reason those missiles had to be launched on Thursday.
That horrific Syrian civil war has been dragging on for more than seven years, after all, and Tuesday’s atrocity was by no means the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons. The Syrian air base and all those Tomahawk missiles would have still been there on Monday morning after a weekend of careful thought, which the situation seems to require. Trump was quite right that Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had carelessly drawn over a previous chemical attack on innocents had emboldened Assad to do it again, even if Trump was “tweeting” advice not to do anything at the time, but that’s as much an argument for not drawing red lines as it for enforcing them. Trump is also quite right to regard the chemical attack as a humanitarian outrage and clear violation of international law, but so were the previous chemical attacks that Trump didn’t want to respond to and a Republican Congress eventually declined to authorize the use of military force to punish. There’s also an argument to made, and naturally some people are making it, that Trump’s announcement that the United States no longer sought regime change in Syria also emboldened Assad to undertake his latest atrocity.
This time around the situation is even more complicated. The Syrian regime is hanging on because of support from Iran, who Obama was eager to reach a friendly deal with and Trump has promised to strike a far harsher deal with, as well as the dictatorship in Russia, which both Obama and Trump have seemed all too eager to get along with for probably very different reasons. One of the Syrian regime’s most formidable enemies is the equally abhorrent and potentially more troublesome Islamic State, which Obama infamously dismissed as the “jay-vee team” of terrorism and Trump has promised to destroy, so there’s a tricky problem of trying to harm one without helping the other. Much of Syria is now controlled by Kurdish forces, who about the closest thing to good guys that you’ll find in the Middle East, and have been of much help in America’s complicated dealings with Iraq, but the Kurds are a problem for Turkey, which is also a problem but nonetheless a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an occasional ally, and Trump once infamously confused them with Iran’s Quds Forces. At this point any rebels remotely resembling modern and democratic types have been pretty much wiped out, thanks to years of inaction, but a few hundred American servicemen are currently in Syria and probably on heightened security at the moment.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuesday’s chemical attack was so horrific it demanded an immediate muscular response, and some people are naturally making that case, but events will surely muddy the argument. The initial reports say that the Russians were given a heads-up on the attack and that care was taken not to bomb the Russian parts of that air base, so some care has been taken not to widen the conflict, but given the extremely complicated state of Russo-American relations at the moment it’s hard to say how that will pan out. By now most Americans don’t care much what that awful government in Iran thinks of all this, but for the past 38 years they haven’t seemed to care what Americans think. Americans have never cared much what the rest of the world thinks, either, but that usually winds up making some difference.
Meanwhile, back in the States, there will be political consequences that no one can possibly predict. Trump ran on promises to beef up America’s military might and criticisms of Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy, but he also explicitly promised an “America First” foreign policy that would avoid the interventionism of the war-mongering neocon establishment that had fallen out of favor with many Republican primary voters and the Rust Belt Democrats who didn’t like Hillary Clinton. He stressed his eagerness to get along with Russia, accused President George W. Bush of lying the country into a Middle East war, lied blatantly about his past support for intervention in Iraq and his more full-throated support for the ill-fated Libyan war, and promised to spend all that war money on re-building America. The comments section at all the Trump-friendly news sources are full of griping by Trump supporters who don’t much care about anyone in Syria and feel betrayed by the missile strike, and we expect that all those Trump-friendly talk radio show hosts wish he’d at least given them a weekend to come up with a justification. It’s hard to see any Democrats siding with Trump on the issue, although they’ll have to add the usual tsk-tsking about Assad gassing those innocents, and unless this missile strike yields unexpectedly quick positive results we don’t see the usual rally-round-the-president sentiment happening.
Fifty or so Tomahawk missiles will hinder Assad’s military capabilities for a while, and might just force him to use conventional bombs rather than chemical weapons in his ongoing war, but unless the missiles keep coming for a while that probably won’t last long. Perhaps Chinese President Xi Jiping will be a bit more wary of Trump during the negotiations at the Mar-a-Lago resort today, but we don’t expect he’s worried that Trump will be lobbing any missiles at his country in the near future, and the nutcase running his client state in North Korea might feel all the more threatened. The strike might also prove to a masterstroke of geo-political 3-D chess playing, as Trump’s more smitten supporters always claim, even when talking about such obvious failures as the recent demise of his health care reform bill, but we’d be mighty impressed if he calculated all those possible combinations in such a short time.
Even after a hundred years people are still sorting out that whole World War I thing. Although we’re no fans of President Woodrow Wilson, and hate the way he used the war to suppress free speech and expand the administrative state and threw away a victory for utopian dreams of a global government, we were planning to write to that he didn’t have much choice but to enter the horrible fray. The alternative was a Europe and world dominated by German militarism and Ottoman theocracy, and the Germans were sinking American ships and waging a war of sabotage and trying to lure Mexico in a revanchist war on our border, and our alliances with Great Britain and France and the emerging democracies were on the line, and our involvement did hasten the end of what was then history’s bloodiest conflict. It’s also true that the war didn’t all wars, as Wilson had promised, and the resulting peace carved the Middle East into all the currently warring states, and Ireland was emboldened to start a bloody war with England that would last for decades, and sub-Saharan Africa wound up with decades of wars, and a not-fully-conquered Germany and an emboldened Japan and a Italy suddenly on the other side would start a far bloodier conflict just two decades later.
These things always take time to sort out, so we’ll reserve a final judgment on Trump’s missile strike. We do hope, though, that some time will be taken before the next military action.

— Bud Norman

A Tough Crowd at West Point

President Barack Obama is fond of giving speeches at colleges, where he can still rouse some of the old rock star enthusiasm among the empty-headed multi-cultural studies kids who haven’t yet returned to their parents’ basements and started paying off their student loan debts with their tips from the artisanal sandwich shop, but for some reason the military academies have always proved a tough crowd. Wednesday’s commencement speech at West Point, which was much ballyhooed as a major foreign policy address, is the latest example.
The sympathetic reporters at CNN described the response from the graduating cadets as “pretty icy,” while the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail generously upgraded that to “tepid,” but we would dispense with the meteorological metaphors all together and say the infrequent and scattered applause was perfunctory or grudgingly polite. According to CNN this was because the speech was “philosophical,” rather than the obscenity-laced sort of battle cry that George C. Scott delivered at the start of “Patton,” we presume, and aside from the stony silence the network didn’t find much fault with the oration. We suspect the reaction had more to do with the absolute balderdash that the speech contained, and that those rigorous engineering courses required at the academy have somehow enabled the graduates to think clearly through the speech’s frightening implications.
In keeping with commencement speech custom, Obama began with a jocular reference to the campus sporting teams, an apparent reference to his “Choom Gang” days as an addled schoolboy, and the obligatory flattering of the graduates. He then flattered himself with a suspiciously rosy assessment of the world today, including a “growing economy that can provide opportunity for everyone who’s willing to work hard and take responsibility here at home,” a decreasing dependence on foreign energy, freedom being championed in public squares around the world, and unrivaled American military supremacy. The record number of people who have given up looking for work, the president’s blocking of oil pipelines and closing of federal lands from drilling and efforts to regulate the tracking revolution that have made us more energy independent, the routine crushing of those who speak for freedom in an increasingly chaotic and less democratic world, and the president’s proposal to reduce America’s military spending to a level less than the annual debt payments all went unmentioned but apparently not unnoticed by the icy audience.
From that point the president started talking tough, bravely battling the usual straw men opposing his policies. There are those who would ignore the rest of the world and those who would launch constant wars against it, the president helpfully explained, but in his wisdom he has found a third option. America will continue to lead and enforce international order, he assured the graduates, but he established some rather strict criteria for when it would use military force to do. The country will still respond to a direct attack against the homeland or the country’s “core interests,” although it is not reassuring that a president feels obliged to offer such assurances, but the president seemed to imply that anything less will be death with by strongly worded statements and hashtags and “multi-lateral actions.” As proof of the wisdom of this approach the president cited Iran’s nuclear endlessly ongoing negotiations over its still-chugging nuclear weapons programs, aid to the Syrian rebels who are being thoroughly routed by the red-line-crossing regime, the sparsely attended recent election in chaotic and menaced Ukraine, and of course the negotiations over those still-kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls that the president mentioned several times, so it’s hard to imagine this getting much applause even from the multi-cultural studies students at the average university.
The scariest part was when the president warned that “We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by the United States Senateā€¦” It’s scary that the president makes mention of the Law of the Sea Convention, which has been a pipe of the dream of the globalist left ever since they started negotiating the thing back in the early ’70s, and has been a dead issue in American politics ever since President Ronald Reagan showed what real foreign policy leadership is by nixing it in ’82. The president says that all of his military advisors believe it will make the country safer, apparently because they’d rather enforce an international border that insists on limits that China and all the other potential major military adversaries dispute, but he also says that every economists agree that bringing another 10 million or unskilled non-English-speaking immigrants into the country will revive the economy. Scarier yet is that the president has announced to China that he’s unable to resist its increasingly belligerent claims on its neighbors territory until the little-known yet widely hated treaty that has been dead since the ’70s is ratified. He might as well announce that we’re unable to help any kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls or other female victims of Islamic radicalism until the Era Rights Amendment is passed.
We don’t wonder why the newly commissioned officers of West Point were so unenthusiastic toward the speech, but of course they weren’t the intended audience. More important to the president were those increasingly anxious supporters who still bother to listen to his speeches, and with a few remnants of the old Bush-era anti-war movement protesting outside the campus with papier mache drones he was anxious to reassure them that although he has to pander to the blood-lusting general public he’s not going all neo-con on them. The tough talk was also intended for the potential adversaries who might be calculating that now’s the time to make that long-desired land grab or smash that long-troublesome foe, but they probably understood the speech as well as those West Point graduates seem to have done. Nervous allies in Kiev, on the bombed-out battlefields of Syria, in the Israeli and Saudi bureaus that are following the Iranian nuclear program, and all over the South China Sea probably offered even less applause.

— Bud Norman