Last week, President Trump decided to fire missiles at Syria over its use of chemical weapons in rebel-held areas. This was almost inarguably the right decision.
And yet, many people are arguing the contrary, like my colleagues Michael Brendan Dougherty and Damon Linker. While we are told, not wrongly, that there is a Washington policy consensus that wants to solve every problem with war, there is also a Washington commentariat consensus that military action in the Middle East is always bad.
This criticism comes from a good place. Many of America's adventures in the Arab world, especially Iraq and Libya, have been disasters with manifold unintended consequences that have made the world much worse and wreaked immense suffering. Indeed, I opposed both of those interventions. The problem is when the case against specific interventions is broadened into a heuristic that says that America should simply never intervene in the Middle East.
Here's the thing: Whether you like it or not, America is the world's lone superpower, and its military dominance over the rest of the world has, despite all its flaws, produced an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The phrase "world policeman" is usually taken as a pejorative, but it is actually extremely apt: A policeman should not be a nanny or a busybody, but, by god, if he sees a thug punching a grandmother, he should intervene. It is actually the antithesis of that other pejorative word, "empire." In political theory terms, a policeman enforces a minimal rule set — what you must not do — whereas an empire enforces a maximal rule set — what you must do. A world empire would be a disaster, but a world policeman is a wonderful thing. And since there are no other credible candidates, America — meaning President Trump — must be it.
Now, one of the rules that America has decided to enforce — and it is a very good rule — is that if you are a state and use weapons of mass destruction, you will be punished. The problem is that rules only stay rules if they are enforced.
The purpose of the Syria strike was not to effect regime change in Syria, or even to alter the balance of power on the ground, it was to enforce the rule after it was flouted by Syria, with the almost certain aid of Russia and, probably, Iran. In this case, the Trump administration was simply doing its job as a policeman. The fact that Barack Obama had previously refused to endorse the rule, thereby imperiling it, made this action all the more necessary and laudable.
Yet, you might ask, didn't the White House seem to state that its goal is now regime change in Syria? That is indeed true and it is indeed a very different animal. As many people have pointed out, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while a mass murderer, is also an enemy of ISIS, and the most likely follow-up scenario to his ouster would be, if not ISIS control over Syria, then certainly an Islamist Syrian regime that would probably harbor terrorists. But it should also be pointed out that some form of anodyne endorsement of regime change has been part of the international community rhetoric on Syria since the beginning of the war. Trump is not proposing sending 200,000 troops to Damascus.
He's not proposing it because he doesn't have the political capital. But the fact remain that there is no good option left in Syria. Shoring up Assad, on top of being immoral, would also set a very bad precedent for dictators everywhere and have its own set of unintended consequences. Alternatives to Assad do indeed look worse.
Usually, Trump's problems are of his own making. His health reform plan and tax plan are collapsing because he is a chaotic individual who cannot run a coherent process. But here, Trump has the same problem as any other president would have, which is that every conceivable option, as far as anyone can tell, is bad. All that's left is lobbing a few Tomahawk missiles here and there to look like he's doing something, and then crossing fingers.
In this specific instance, the lobbing was well-advised. But the overall picture still looks as grim as ever.