Why Trump shouldn’t attack Syria

Starkville Daily News - - FORUM -

When it comes to for­eign af­fairs, the Amer­i­can pub­lic has two clear and pow­er­ful in­cli­na­tions. The first is to con­trol what hap­pens be­yond our bor­ders, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to con­flicts that gain our fickle at­ten­tion. The se­cond is to sac­ri­fice as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. We want to run the world, but we don’t want to knock our­selves out.

Don­ald Trump shares those pref­er­ences, but he finds them col­lid­ing with each other in Syria, where the United States has 2,000 troops fight­ing the Is­lamic State. On March 29, he promised that our men and women will “be com­ing out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other peo­ple take care of it now.”

In due course, by the odd­est of coin­ci­dences, the regime of Bashar As­sad re­port­edly at­tacked a rebel strong­hold with poi­son gas that killed dozens and sick­ened hun­dreds. Amid a storm of world out­rage at the use of chem­i­cal weapons against civil­ians, Trump sud­denly had a change of heart about our in­volve­ment, vow­ing to re­spond “force­fully” in Syria.

The pres­i­dent, like much of the pub­lic, bounces be­tween the de­sire to min­i­mize our in­volve­ment in long, costly wars and the be­lief that we should al­ways get our way in the world. The ideal is an in­ter­ven­tion that is quick, easy, suc­cess­ful and low on ca­su­al­ties.

Ge­orge W. Bush and his ad­min­is­tra­tion sold the Iraq in­va­sion on the prom­ise that we would go in, re­move Sad­dam Hus­sein, lib­er­ate the coun­try and be home for Thanks­giv­ing. “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today will last five days, five weeks or five months, but it won’t last any longer than that,” De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld as­sured Amer­i­cans be­fore­hand. It lasted longer than that.

Barack Obama had a sim­i­lar aspi­ra­tion in Libya, us­ing airstrikes to de­feat and top­ple Moam­mar Gad­hafi. They achieved the goal but had the un­wanted con­se­quence of turn­ing Libya into a ter­ror­ist-in­fested caul­dron of vi­o­lence. Even Obama said the Libya op­er­a­tion was his “worst mis­take.”

When you go big, as Bush did, you run a high risk of be­ing fa­tally bogged down for years in a sav­age but in­con­clu­sive war. When you go small, as Obama did, you stand a good chance of achiev­ing lit­tle or mak­ing things worse.

Trump has al­ready run this ex­per­i­ment and learned noth­ing from it. In 2013, as Obama was be­ing urged to in­ter­vene in re­sponse to As­sad’s use of chem­i­cal weapons, he tweeted, “Stay out of Syria.” Shortly af­ter Trump took of­fice, the regime al­legedly used gas again, and he or­dered a missile strike to “de­ter the spread and use of deadly chem­i­cal weapons.”

The one-off went quickly, cost lit­tle and pro­duced no Amer­i­can ca­su­al­ties. The down­side was that it didn’t work. As­sad’s forces have not only gained ground in the past year but ap­par­ently used nerve agents sev­eral times in the past year — and they used them again this month.

To re­spond by hitting Syr­ian or Rus­sian tar­gets with mis­siles would sat­isfy Trump’s need to as­sert his tough­ness. As Naval War College pro­fes­sor An­drew Stigler told me, “They of­fer grat­i­fi­ca­tion with­out com­mit­ment.”

But we can be con­fi­dent that they wouldn’t change the course of the war, bring down As­sad or serve as a re­li­able deter­rent against more gas at­tacks. More likely, blow­ing up some tar­gets would sim­ply highlight the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­fusal to take ac­tion that would al­ter any im­por­tant out­come.

This op­tion has a small po­ten­tial up­side but a huge pos­si­ble down­side: a mil­i­tary con­flict with the Rus­sians or the Ira­ni­ans. Both have more at stake in Syria than we do, as well as strong al­liances with a gov­ern­ment that has all but won the war.

De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis seems to rec­og­nize the depth of our predica­ment. “We’re try­ing to stop the mur­der of in­no­cent peo­ple,” he told the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee on Thurs­day. “But on a strate­gic level, it’s how do we keep this from es­ca­lat­ing out of con­trol — if you get my drift on that.”

It would be bad enough for the U.S. to en­ter into a fight with nei­ther the means nor the ap­petite to achieve a vic­tory. It would be far worse to blun­der into a hot war with an ad­ver­sary that has 1,400 nu­clear war­heads that can be de­liv­ered to Amer­i­can soil.

You would think our re­cent ven­tures into Mid­dle East­ern con­flicts have supplied Amer­i­cans with enough re­grets to last a life­time. But Syria is there if we need more.

Steve Chap­man blogs at http://www.chicagotri­bune.com/news/opin­ion/chap­man. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @SteveChap­man13 or at https:// www.face­book.com/stevechap­man13. To find out more about Steve Chap­man and read fea­tures by other Cre­ators Syn­di­cate writ­ers and car­toon­ists, visit the Cre­ators Syn­di­cate web­site at www.cre­ators.com.


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