For the moment, Donald Trump’s bombing of a military airfield in Syria has earned him a measure of success that has eluded his bumbling and malevolent administration during its first three months in office. No doubt he is thrilled by admiring coverage on cable television; by endorsements from voices on the left and right, outraged by Bashar Assad’s latest atrocity against the Syrian people; and by the ultimate distraction from the Russia investigations, the failure of Obamacare repeal, and the ongoing warfare within his White House.
Whatever Trump’s motives, he was hardly alone in wanting to punish Assad for the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykoun. Millions shared the fury that Trump claimed to feel when he saw video of children and infants who died terribly in that village. And the more sober imperative, to discourage the use of poison gas by any regime, is longstanding American policy for good reason.
But impulsive military action, lacking any strategic plan or even broader rationale, is no more likely to end the Syrian civil war than the lack of action after Assad’s last, and even worse, chemical assault outside Damascus four years ago. Having opposed President Obama’s initiative to punish Assad following that attack, Trump clearly has no idea what to do now that his missiles have landed. Nor do Congressional Republicans, whose enthusiastic support for Trump’s action today rings hollow for anyone who remembers how they rejected Obama’s request to authorize military force in 2013.
By now, such partisan vacillation about military action is all too familiar, especially among Republicans. In 1999, when Bill Clinton decided to act against Slobodan Milosevic’s incipient genocide against Muslims in Kosovo, nearly every Republican on Capitol Hill denounced his interventionism in the most strident terms. According to them, the worst war crimes in Europe since World War II were simply not America’s concern. Carping Republicans mounted a series of absurd arguments on the floor of Congress.
If the NATO bombing campaign against Serb forces didn’t achieve surrender within a week, it had failed, they said. If NATO nations weren’t ready to send in ground troops, they should do nothing. And if the West didn’t prevent genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, and East Timor, then Western nations should ignore catastrophic violence and the threat of a far wider war. Fortunately, Clinton ignored them.
But only three years later, the same Republicans who had opposed Clinton’s surgical policy in Kosovo endorsed a wholesale invasion of Iraq, with calamitous consequences that both the United States and the entire Mideast must endure. It didn’t matter to them that Bush had essentially ignored the United Nations and violated his own pledge to allow UN weapons inspections to be completed before any US military action. Indeed, it didn’t matter that the entire rationale for the war — the supposed existence of chemical, biological, even nuclear weapons in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal — was premised on exceptionally weak evidence.
Worse still, the Republicans permitted Bush to invade Iraq in March 2003 — which he ordered after contemplating regime change there since early in his presidency — without a plausible exit strategy. The war’s advocates promised a “cakewalk,” a chance to profit from Iraq’s oil, an easy war and an easy way out, which many found persuasive at the time, apparently including Donald Trump. We all know how that worked out.
What will happen this time? It is impossible to predict what kind of policy will be pursued by Trump, whose previous declarations about Syria (and Russia) probably encouraged Assad to think he could escape accountability for any crime he commits. He issued one strident tweet after another, demanding that Obama stand down after Assad’s 2013 gas attack. (Maybe he didn’t look at the videos, or they didn’t show enough children dying.) It is possible to predict, however, that inconsistent actions motivated by presidential emotion are sure to fail. Already the airbase struck by US missiles on Thursday appears to be back in service — and Assad has exercised many other methods of massacring civilians, including tens of thousands of children. Symbolic retaliation doesn’t accomplish much.
So have Republicans — or hawkish Democrats — learned anything from the military and diplomatic history of the past two decades? At least some politicians of both parties appear to understand that rushing into conflict with Russia and Iran — without an international coalition, without any United Nations support, without conclusive proof that Assad perpetrated the chemical attack, without any notion of a strategy to end the war, instigated by an understaffed administration whose commander-in-chief has absolutely no idea what he is doing — marks the first step down a very dangerous road.