The attack on Syria was justified, but it has plenty of implications for the future
April 12, 2017 12:00 AM
By Dan Simpson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In spite of the indignation of some Americans and foreigners at the swipe the United States took at the Bashar Assad regime and its various complicit friends — Russia, Iran, Hezbollah — with the cruise missile attack on the Syrian air base Thursday night, I still think it was the right thing for America to do.
A principled United States cannot just stand by while savages like Assad and his supporters do things like shower poison gas on children — children of his own country, for that matter.
None of that is to say that I am not cognizant of the other aspects of the issue presented by Thursday’s attack. An occasional punitive attack in exceptionally atrocious circumstances does not mean, in my view, an attack anywhere someone does something awful. The element of what might make the Americans bring the hammer down might actually serve as a deterrent to some of the world’s true beasts.
I think of candidates for such whacks as the leaders of South Sudan, the Islamic State — already the beneficiaries of U.S. military attention — and some of the other players in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, our current battlefields.
I am also aware of the implications and aspects of the American side of the decision for the attack and of possible future such actions.
Start with President Donald J. Trump. He probably figured out through having his head handed to him by Congress in the Obamacare non-repeal and the Trumpcare lack of success that it is immeasurably easier for a president to win in the field of foreign affairs than it is to herd the cats — or rats — who inhabit Washington into action in domestic affairs. He hasn’t even gotten the ball rolling yet on the big infrastructure bill, which everyone should love, never mind tax reform, the budget or the national debt limit. Congress has gone home for two weeks.
Yet, with a simple order to fire 60 Tomahawk missiles from U.S. Navy ships into Syria, he successfully drove off the front pages both the revelations of growing campaign complicity between Russia and his spear carriers, the absence of a promised successful scolding of Chinese President Xi Jinping at last week’s meeting and the aftermath of the health care legislative debacle. It’s not hard to figure out which is easier for a president who started his term beleaguered.
Now, it is critical that Americans not forget that President George W. Bush strove to assure his second term by the 2003 launching of a war against Iraq, which was falsely accused both of having nuclear weapons and of ties to then-favorite villain, al-Qaida. Mr. Trump, with popularity ratings already in the 30s, has to be thinking of the perquisites he is now enjoying, at the White House, Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, coming to an end after four years if he doesn’t somehow wrangle a second term, through being a “war president,” or by other means. (It appears so far that he won’t gain enough love from the voters through job creation, a measly 98,000 in March, although that could change when he brings coal and steel back. Sure.)
It is also important not to forget that three of his prominent advisers in these decisions are generals. There is Gen. James Mattis at Defense, Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security and Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. All three of these officials are considered to be serious. There remains, however, the fact that they are military, not civilians. Military officers do well in wars, promotions, extra pay and other rewards for them and their friends. Wars also please the defense contractors, the stalwarts of America’s military-industrial complex who give these generals six- and seven-figure jobs when they retire.
The attack on Shayrat cost at least $49 million, for Tomahawk missiles made by General Dynamics and Raytheon/McDonnell.
There is more. I hope that no one thinks for a minute that Thursday’s attack will change the course of the war in Syria. It might — might — stop Assad and the Russians from using poison gas on children again, but the Syrians are already using the airfield again and the onslaught that Syrian government forces, the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah are carrying out against Syrian rebels hasn’t paused a bit and won’t, in my view.
The number and extent of U.S. forces that would have to be put into Syria to actually change the course of the war there is far, far beyond what the American people are on for. As for Congress, the amount of American force that would have to be employed in Syria to change the course of the war would be such that Congress would have to give its approval through the War Powers Act. Even if one opposes that act — it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to ask the American people’s representatives to approve that level of American involvement, says the cynic — there is clearly no discernible popular support in America for yet another Middle Eastern war, particularly one as uncertain in its outcome as one in Syria.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have said that if the United States hits Syria again, they will hit back at the United States. Now, they probably don’t mean that, given what the costs would be to them. Nor, however, should one count on those being empty threats. If they wanted to, it is not necessary to imagine attacks on shopping centers in Western Pennsylvania; it is more likely to be an attack or attacks on U.S. facilities in the Middle East. The United States has bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and elsewhere. Those places are just opposite Iran in the Persian Gulf. They “back” on a lot of difficult-to-defend desert. Then there is U.S. ally Israel, which has not yet had to face directly attacks by the Islamic State group. Egypt has had to face the IS in the Sinai peninsula and has not found it a joyous experience.
So, leave U.S. intervention in the Syrian war where it is now. Fighting the IS in Raqqa, in Syria, is, in principle, consistent with what the Assad regime, Russia and Iran want also. But leave it at that. The United States must not be drawn into the struggle to get rid of Assad. His friends — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — will not put up with his being pushed out, particularly after six-plus years of fighting.
Retain the option of whacking the Assad regime again if it carries out atrocities such as using poison gas on children, if for no other reason than that the United States wants to continue to be able to maintain that its actions are moral sometimes. The other place to continue to watch closely for crazy Trump administration behavior is Korea. A one-off air or missile strike against North Korea would not end there, for certain.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).
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