National Security & Defense

War, Willy-Nilly

Damaged portrait of Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, Syria, March 2015 (Reuters photo: Ammar Abdallah
It’s unclear what Trump hoped to accomplish by bombing Syria, but it’s illegal in any case.

On Wednesdays, we are at war with the Islamic State. On Thursdays, we are at war with the Islamic State, in effect acting as a cat’s-paw for the world’s leading jihad brigade against the government of Bashar al-Assad, who apparently intends to murder Syrians until he is pleased with what is left.

We should let him.

This is not cynicism, only an acknowledgement of the actual facts of the case. As Daniel Pipes and others have persuasively argued, the United States does not have an ally in Syria. The United States does not have any national interest in the success of the ISIS-aligned coalition fighting to depose Assad. The United States does not have any interest in strengthening the position of the Assad regime and the position of his Russian and Iranian patrons. Pipes sums it up: “Iranian- and Russian-backed Shiite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis.”

Of course the Assad regime is murderous. It is murderous in an awfully familiar way: a Baathist despot in cahoots with jihadists using chemical weapons against a civilian population. You’d think we would have gotten that out of our system with Saddam Hussein.

The Trump administration has no authorization to engage in war on Syria. Congress has not declared war or authorized the use of military force; there is no emergency to justify the president’s acting unilaterally in his role as commander in chief; there is no imminent threat to American lives or American interests — indeed, there is no real American interest at all. President Donald Trump is acting illegally, and Congress has a positive moral obligation to stop him. This is exactly why we have an impeachment process, though for the moment a bipartisan congressional resolution — if Congress had any self-respect, it would be unanimous — ought to be sufficient.

All decent people feel for the Syrians. We also feel for the Ukrainians, the North Koreans, the men and women languishing in Chinese laogai, Russian gulags, and Cuban prisons. We do not go to war for the sake of sentiment. We go to war for the sake of pressing national interests that cannot be otherwise secured. There is no casus belli for knocking over the Assad government, odious as it is.

EDITORIAL: Syria After the Airstrikes

As noted in National Review Online, the Trump administration notified the Russians ahead of the missile strikes on Shayrat Air Field, meaning that the Syrians were effectively alerted to our intentions as well. Trump, who during the campaign declined to speak about many of his national-security views in a transparent attempt to cover up his deep and wide ignorance with tough-guy talk about not telegraphing our moves to the enemy, did everything short of using an actual telegraph. Critics who pointed out — and continue to point out — that President Trump suffers from serious defects in both character and judgment have precisely this type of situation in mind. War isn’t Twitter.

If what the Trump administration has in mind is symbolic pinprick Tomahawk missile strikes launched from safe harbor, then the president and his men are merely fooling about. If what the Trump administration has in mind is something more substantial, then the president owes the nation an explanation of exactly what those young men and women who may be asked to do their country the service of dying for it would be dying for. So that we can all feel a little better about the savage state of the Middle East and our own occasional fumbling contributions to that savagery? So that President Trump can advertise his independence from Moscow and from the many admirers of Vladimir Putin who have surrounded him from time to time? Because we do not like seeing disturbing images on television?

RELATED: Trump Enforces Obama’s Red Line

Perhaps the American public has changed its mind — again — about the wisdom and necessity of toppling Levantine dictators on grounds that might charitably be described as naïvely idealistic. But the American public did not show much stomach for the long fight the last time around, and we still do not quite seem to know what we ought to be doing in Iraq: After being borne to the presidency on a wave of anti-war sentiment and pocketing a Nobel Peace Prize for his great achievement in not being George W. Bush, Barack Obama found himself obliged to reinvade Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops are currently in their seventh month of “supporting and advising” — ahem — the siege of Mosul.

President George H. W. Bush went to war with Iraq to reverse the invasion of Kuwait, an American ally, with an eye toward discouraging Saddam Hussein from future adventures. President George W. Bush went to war with Iraq because he believed that the country could be made into something like a decent liberal democracy, or at least a friendly failing state on the lines of Pakistan during the rule of Benazir Bhutto.

Why is Donald Trump making war on Syria?

Congress ought to ask him to explain that, and also to explain from where he believe he derives the authority to do so without legal authorization.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.



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