Syria’s Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons, and the usual suspects—the ever-egregious Lindsey Graham and John McCain, of course, along with many others—are urging President Donald Trump to wage war on Damascus. Yet even if Syria is responsible for such an attack, in practice there is little that Washington can and should do.
Chemical weapons have not been Bashar al-Assad’s biggest killer: explosives and bullets are responsible for most of the deaths in Syria. Absent initiating full-scale war, Washington is likely to do little other than inconveniencing Assad while escalating against Russia, risking American lives, and wasting more of the nation’s wealth—all while making the U.S. less secure.
President Trump recently spoke an essential truth on foreign policy when he stated that American troops should come home from Syria. The Islamic State has been defeated and Washington has no business trying to overthrow Assad, dismember Syria, get between the Turks and Kurds, confront Russia and Iran, and whatever other inane quests the neocon think tanks have come up with.
However, the Blob—as the foreign policy establishment and its extensive network of analysts, pundits, and officials is known—also dominates the president’s staff. Indeed, it is not clear he has anyone working for him, at least at the State Department, Pentagon, and National Security Council, who is not a card-carrying member of the Blob. That means his foreign policy aides spend most of their time trying to talk him out of his most sensible ideas.
So now it’s decision time. Will Trump resist pressure to launch large-scale attacks to punish Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons? If so, it could be the moment when “Let Trump be Trump” finally occurs.
For instance, during the campaign, candidate Trump shocked the Blob by saying that he would be happy to talk to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. It seemed like a radical idea at the time, given the potential for the planned summit to collapse ingloriously. Nevertheless, such an opening also offered the best chance of a diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang. The president deserves kudos for backing what no one else imagined was possible.
Whether the now-agreed-to summit will survive the rise of uber-hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who back war and regime change whenever possible, remains to be seen. But at the moment, at least, the meeting remains planned if not guaranteed.
Almost everywhere else, however, the president has surrendered to the Blob.
There were his appointments of H.R. McMaster, Pompeo, and Bolton, all hawks and all an indication that President Trump didn’t intend to follow through on candidate Trump’s broad rejection of those who had backed the Iraq war (like Bolton) and favored military intervention as a first resort. Back then, Trump even denounced “aggression” and criticized Hillary Clinton for essentially being a warmonger.
Among the president’s most consistent and long-lived positions was his criticism of allies leeching off the United States, which turned the Pentagon into an international welfare agency. During the campaign he was an equal opportunity critic. The Europeans, South Koreans, Japanese, and Saudis all came in for sharp and well-deserved barbs.
South Korea has 45 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. So why does the U.S. still garrison the peninsula? Japan has the world’s third-largest economy. If Tokyo is worked up about an aggressive North Korea and China, then why doesn’t it spend more than an anemic one percent of GDP on its military, er, “Self-Defense Force”?
The Europeans spent the entire Cold War promising to do more and then falling short. Today they have 12 times Russia’s GDP and three times Russia’s population. America should do more than pressure European nations to meet their own requirement of two percent GDP spent on defense. It should bring its own forces home and allow the Europeans to make their own decisions without interference.
The Saudis, on the other hand, spend wildly on their military, but without ever building a state that its citizens are interested in defending. Rather than helping to kill off ISIS, Riyadh launched a foolish, counterproductive, and murderous war against Yemen. Yet today it presses the U.S. to stay in Syria, threaten Iran, and protect its royal family as it revels in the abundant wealth it stole from the Saudi people.
In all these cases the president has been ill-served. His own appointees (and relatives, most notably son-in-law Jared Kushner) have consistently undermined his efforts. His complaints still occasionally receive airtime—most recently he griped about continued free-riding by South Korea and Saudi Arabia. But he never does anything in response. And Bolton and Pompeo, who never met an alliance they did not want Americans to underwrite, will do their best to further stifle the president’s best judgments.
Afghanistan was another example where the president understood the basic issue far better than did the Blob. After the 9/11 attacks, Washington was right to strike al-Qaeda and defenestrate the Taliban government. But the ensuing 16-plus years of nation-building, the bizarre attempt to build a liberal, democratic, centralized state in Central Asia, was a fantasy not worth a single American’s life. Without earning a Ph.D., President Trump understood this essential truth, and the Blob beat him to a pulp. In the end he agreed to a minimal “surge” sufficient to prevent obvious defeat on his watch but not to change the ultimate outcome. That means more Americans will die for nothing.
The same situation is playing out in Syria. A second American has died and for no reason. Even the Pentagon believes the Islamic State is 98 percent defeated. But the president’s aides would have him believe that the Assad government, Turkey, Jordan, the Gulf States, Iran, and Russia are incapable of eliminating the remaining ISIS fighters. (Alas, those forces have no incentive to do so as long as Washington is willing to do it for them.)
Trump recently went as far as to assert that America’s forces in Afghanistan will be returning home very soon. But then his aides, who obviously serve the Blob first and him second, if that, pummeled him on the importance of combatting all manner of dire threats, from Assad to Turkey, Iran, Russia, and maybe even the zombie apocalypse. Now the Greek chorus of war is demanding retaliation for Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons, which would be merely another step towards further entanglement.
Syria doesn’t matter much to the U.S. The other parties will inevitably commit more and risk more because Syria is important to them. The use of chemical weapons is atrocious, but so is the use of bullets and explosives against civilians. The Assad regime is criminal, but so are many other governments around the globe, including U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, which is prodigiously killing civilians in Yemen. Washington cannot fix Syria at any reasonable cost, if at all. The president has no plausible, let alone convincing, justification for sacrificing more American lives and wealth there.
Letting Trump be Trump was never a panacea. He is wrong on the nuclear agreement with Iran, for instance, and his musings about military action against Venezuela were bizarre at best. But the more fundamental problem is that no one is letting him be himself when he demonstrates good sense. And so he’s giving in to the Blob—perhaps his attention span lagged, he didn’t care enough to fight, or he feared overriding people in uniforms with stars on their shoulders.
Whatever the reason, for many Americans, the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has turned out to be no choice at all. A few of us harbored hopes that he at least might confront the Blob and begin to reorient U.S. foreign policy. But that was not to be.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.