Hit and Run

Donald Trump’s Syria Strike Made Its Point—That Doesn’t Mean It Should Start a War

Friday’s strikes reminded me of President Reagan’s retaliation against Libya in the wake of the 1986 West Berlin discotheque bombing.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Non-interventionists have a new reason to fear escalation this week: In the wake of President Trump’s decision to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, calls for regime change are mounting.

United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley had said as recently as March 30 that "our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Sunday, though, she told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”

Senate and Congressional leadership echoed Haley’s new sentiment. “I don’t see how there can possibly be any settlement in Syria that includes Bashar al Assad,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Friday.

“There is no such thing as ‘Assad, yes,’ but ‘ISIS, no,’” Sen. Marco Rubio averred on ABC’s “This Week.”

“You can’t have stability with Assad in power,” agreed Texas Rep. Will Hurd. And Congressman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “I think it’s time for Assad to go.”

These comments, coupled with questions from the media premised on the notion Trump should have a long-term strategy for stopping the Syrian civil war (and doubts as to whether a “Trump doctrine” even exists)—also serve to incentivize further involvement.

Trump’s decision to strike Assad was well-executed, and perfectly rational. But the danger is that these things have a tendency to snowball.

Now, maybe there’s a way to negotiate a deal whereby Russia persuades Assad to exit. A more likely scenario, though, is that he clings on, potentially to part of a partitioned Syria. But the worst-case scenario could well be that America helps topple the regime, only to see a vacuum created where Syria descends into utter chaos (see: Libya)—potentially requiring further intervention in order to avert a new humanitarian crisis and augmented terror threat.

Instead of going down any of these rabbit holes, Trump should stop while he’s ahead. And, in so doing, he would find himself in good company.

Friday’s strikes reminded me of President Reagan’s retaliation against Libya in the wake of the 1986 West Berlin discotheque bombing. It sent a message to the world that crossing the line would result in being caught in crosshairs, so to speak. It didn’t lead to war, regime change or occupation.

Here’s hoping that Donald Trump learns the lessons of recent history. It seems that by now we should have learned that toppling evil and horrific regimes has violent and unintended consequences.

There are numerous reasons for this, but the primary one is likely that western civilization, from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 until today, required hundreds of years of societal evolution before institutions such as the rule of law flourished and matured into liberal democracy.

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“Spreading democracy”—the notion that toppling a tinhorn dictator will suddenly empower people to rise up and behave like responsible citizens of the world—isn’t merely quixotic and dangerous; it defies historical observation.

President Donald Trump should avoid replicating the false choices of George W. Bush (whose adventurism ironically created an isolationist backlash) and Barack Obama (whose weakness and unenforced “red line” invited provocation) and instead look to Reagan.

Just as Reagan had to restore optimism and overcome the “Vietnam syndrome” that had crippled America psychologically, Trump can help America overcome its “Iraq syndrome” by (A) putting bullies in their place and (B) not getting bogged down in nation building. These things are neither opposites nor mutually exclusive. Turning America around will require recognizing the traumatizing effect war-weariness has on the national psyche.

Last week, I was perturbed by the hand-wringing coming from people who were worried that punishing Assad for gassing his own people might go wrong. (It’s always possible for things to go wrong, but this sort of paralysis of analysis is equally dangerous.) I thought their reactions were both negative and weak. America swiftly demonstrated that there was a price to pay for using chemical weapons, and I think that it was a small, if symbolic, step toward restoring our leadership role in the wake of the anemic Obama presidency.

This week began with me being horrified by the number of people who wanted to escalate this situation into some sort of regime change. To be sure, not all of them think we should go in there, guns blazing, and make it happen―but that’s irrelevant. Getting rid of Assad is no panacea, and the fact that so many voices are now calling for that makes me wonder if they’ve fallen asleep in history class.

Again, while I may criticize the isolationists, they do have a point about those hawks who wish to engage in perpetual saber rattling. Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.

In that vein, give them an air strike, and they’ll take a dictator.