I am Not An Isolationist, But...

US military interventions abroad -- at an absolute minimum -- have got to represent some reasonable path to a better future.  It is amazing how even this simple and obvious test is almost never met by our actions.  Instead, I think many folks substitute some test more like "Is the situation really bad?--if so, rev up the troops."  To this end, Assad is clearly a bad guy.  Assad (or someone) using poison gas on civilians is a bad thing.  Russia providing cover for these bad things is also a bad thing.  But what is the alternative?  Obama's support of rebels in Libya is just a fantastic example we should all remember -- the Libyan regime was bad but we supported its overthrow in favor of a situation now which is clearly worse.  Iraq-style regime change is out of favor for good reasons, but at least regime change advocates had a clear explanation of how they wanted to get to a better future with military action -- they were going to take the whole place over with massive military force and stand on it for a couple of decades until, like Germany after 1945, it becomes a responsible citizen of the world.  The costs are high and I don't think it is in our long-term interests to do so, but at least there was a logical story.

What is the story in Syria?  We kill a couple hundred folks with cruise missiles to avenge a few dozen folks killed with poison gasses and, what?  Do the citizens of Syria really need yet another foreign power lobbing explosives into their country?  The only argument I hear is that Assad crossed a line and now we have to show him what for.  But this sounds like an 18th century aristocrat vowing to defend his honor after an insult.  It's sort of emotionally satisfying -- take that, asshole! -- but where does it get us except further mired in yet another foreign conflict we have not hope of making better?  We look back and criticize the major powers in 1914 for getting involved in the constant squabbles in the Balkans but do the same thing in the Middle East, the 21st century's Balkans.


  1. jon49:

    And that assumes that Assad really did that or maybe it was a setup as an excuse to do an invasion?

  2. kidmugsy:

    "We look back and criticize the major powers in 1914 for getting involved in the constant squabbles in the Balkans": that's an interesting analogy. To complete it: the USA is playing the role of the Kaiser's Germany.

  3. August Hurtel:

    I don't think the story is true, and obviously the bombing was not in our national interests.

  4. Brad Richards:

    You're exactly right, it just doesn't have any apparent purpose. Even more so when you consider the possibility (probability?) that the poison gas wasn't Assad at all. The story we are being told is just not coherent: Assad has nothing to gain. Anyway, seems it can't really be Sarin, either, or else the unprotected first responders would be dead through skin contact..

    Of course, the US isn't newly involved here: At the very same time the US was chasing Al Queda through the mountains of Afghanistan, you were equipping Al Queda in Syria. Lots of US money and weapons went to anti-Assad groups in Syria for years. But why topple Assad? Especially (as you point out) after seeing what happened in Libya.

    So Assad is finally getting the upper hand over the US funded rebels as well as ISIS. Maybe this is embarrassing to the neocons who started the whole mess? Certainly, I have no better explanation. Really, the best the the US could do would be: go home. Just go home and stop stirring up trouble in other countries.

  5. mlhouse:

    Sorry, but there clearly is a purpose here: to enforce the restrictions on using chemical weapons. This is not an arbitrary distinction, and allowing one actor to use these weapons with impunity only opens the door for other actors to do so. While the argument can be made that what is the difference, there is a difference and most of the world agrees with this distinction.

  6. roystgnr:

    "You get more of what you reward and less of what you punish" seems like a straightforward enough story.

    Whether our level of punishment is sufficient and/or worth the risk is questionable, and whether it was constitutional is doubtful, but the "reasonable path to a better future" is probably pretty simple: future military decision makers who consider gaining an advantage via war crimes are now more likely to decide that that's outweighed by subsequent disadvantage via reprisals, then choose not to.

    (This does gets more complicated if the "we were just bombing *their* chemical weapons" story gets any traction, in which case future war criminals may just try to make their cover stories more believable, or if the story is actually *true*, in which case we've just modified incentives in exactly the wrong direction)

  7. Nehemiah:

    I'll admit that a part of me cheered the action. Punching Assad in the jaw right under the noses of his Russian protectors was satisfying, as you said, take that asshole. I also liked that we did while meeting with China and telling them they had better reign in North Korea or we'd take direct action. A statement which gained significant credibility with our Tomahawk missiles in the air.

    However, there is another part of me, a more cynical part, that suspects the anti-Assad forces gassed those people, if they were gassed at all, to bring more pressure on Assad. Our previous statements made it sound like we had backed off regime change as the required outcome and our renewed efforts to take down ISIS provides indirect support to Assad.

  8. rst1317:

    How does lobbying some fancy bombs _ENFOrce_ this restriction?

  9. mlhouse:

    How does a shot across the bow stop a ship at sea?

  10. herdgadfly:

    As a national policy, isolationism has one strong advantage - it keeps the those in power with neither the gray matter nor the ethics to administer war responsibly. But reality raises its ugly head when you consider that war involves breaking things and killing people - and that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is "Nuff said!"

    Never forget: "Power begets the use of power and the use of power begets the abuse of power."

  11. rst1317:

    The CBC's evening news just claimed that Trump campaigned as an isolationist. I'm not sure the media uses the same dictionary as the real world.

  12. james:

    First I heard when Trump bombed the runway was that he used 59 missiles. Very macho.

    Now it's "critical military infrastructure" or something. Then it's false flag...

    In the Falklands war the Brits used some old bombers on a vector apth to bomb Stanley airport. Basically throwing some bombs out of the cargo bay,

    Brit media was aghast. How could we be so inaccurate. (Only one bomb actually hit the runway.) But no further use by the Argentine air force.

    Think of it this way:
    To have ain airforce, you need a runway.
    No runway, no airforce.
    $1,000,000 missile to hit some tarmac. About as effective as taking out the jets.
    If your $1000,000 missile encourages the other side to repair the runway... Do it again. Uncle Sam can afford it.

    Saddam sent all his planes to Syria during the Gulf War. Did that help him?

  13. Joel:

    During the Arab Spring I was hoodwinked. I thought is was a democratic movement by young people using the new social media. I think Obama was hoodwinked too. Now I know different, and that Israel always knew the real facts on the ground, especially with respect to Mubarak.

    If I really had to choose , it's a horrible choice but I choose Assad over ISIS. Let's stay out there, though. Completely.

  14. GoneWithTheWind:

    It's the slippery slope problem. You can't just roll over when a nation uses WMD's/poison gas.

    What is the correct response? Well that depends on what the intelligence is and we don't know. Trump knows but we don't. I would be happy if our government shared that with us all, but maybe they can't. I find myself wishing Clinton had done something in Rwanda to stop or prevent that terrible slaughter. What is the "right" response? Impossible to know. Time will tell if this was just a waste of money or it gave us leverage in future efforts to stop this terrible slaughter.

  15. Maks Swing:

    Yes but where is the detailed un report about the truth of using poison gas and WHO used that gas? Literally the US dropped bombs based on I heard something on twitter. That of course kind of fits this president.

  16. mlhouse:

    God, the conspiracy theories abound. Is this how you are going to run foreign policy????

  17. Q46:

    It was symbolic and it was not just about Syria.

    It was the USA Government saying that the big stick they have will be used, so everyone be careful. For eight years the USA has been waving a feather duster.

    It is called 'making an example' - use of chemical weapons provided a convenient and timely opportunity.

    The more costly war or some aggressive act is likely to be, the less likely it will be waged or carried out.

    Even the loonies in North Korea understand that.

  18. Ike Evans:

    I have a feeling the missile strikes are a bad idea.

    1) It doesn't make sense to me for Assad to use chemical weapons like this. What does he have to gain? Are we 100% sure it was carried out by Assad's regime?

    2) The strikes didn't adequately do it's job. The Syrian regime still continues to use this airport almost immediately after the strikes.

    3) Trump is not a man of careful strategy. He is a shoot first, and answer questions later kind of guy. I don't believe he has a meaningful end game here.

    It is worth noting that quite a few Trumpkins were adamant that their guy was THE guy not to get us into a war with Russia. So much for that theory.

  19. Matthew Slyfield:

    1) Eliminating rebel forces. He's done it before, long before ISIS was ever a thing.

    3) You're wrong, Trump is shoot first, shoot second, shoot third, . . . wait, were there some questions we wanted to ask? . . . shoot some more.

  20. CapitalistRoader:

    Really, the best the the US could do would be: go home. Just go home and stop stirring up trouble in other countries.

    Something we should have done whenever the warmongering Europeans started killing themselves and the natives of their colonized countries all those countless times in the 20th Century. In this latest case, Hollande and Merkel are singing praises to Trump's missile attack but it won't be long until they start calling us the aggressor again.

    And since France and Germany were so happy with the attack, one wonders why they don't do it themselves. Syria is in their backyard, not ours.

  21. Petri:

    After experiencing the months of investigations concluding there are WMDs in Iraq or Gulf of Tonkin or Operation Northwoods. I've grown reluctant to trust any actors, including our own politicians. After looking at the videos of al-Nusra responders, hosing off "chemicals" from victims, but none of the responders wearing PPE, leaves me slightly unconvinced. To give the political class, carte blanche 'police strike' capabilities without public debate or without presentation of evidence is never a good thing in the long-term.

  22. Signal:

    Lots of criticism here and elsewhere of action. But its clear that in most situations, there's also a cost to inaction. The costs of action take a few years to become evident. Libya looked like success early on. So did Iraq. The costs of inaction take even longer to manifest. I believe those costs are just as real.

    The Balkan wars are not a quarter-century ago. Were we right to act? Is there peace because we acted? Would war have spread if we hadn't?

    The arguments against action upon misbehavior feeling like watching quarterly stock prices to measure economic success.

  23. Mercury:

    Is it too much to ask for ANY primary source evidence of a "gas attack" in Syria?

    Not video of kids being sprayed down with garden hoses but cell phone or security cam footage -anything- of planes in the sky, things going *boom* in the night, people running around in a panic...

    You can't walk in a circle on this planet without being recorded three different ways. Isn't it odd that this big thing happened and there is zero record of it? What am I missing? Did any such video get posted to YouTube or anywhere else that I missed?

  24. August Hurtel:

    People are waving around the idea that this was symbolic as if symbolic bombings can't be just a stupid as un-symbolic bombings...

  25. MSO:

    Syrian refugees number in the millions, mostly in Turkey. Erdogan is threatening to forward the refugees to Europe as he creates his dictatorship. The refugees and the rest of the world would be much better off if there were safe refugee camps inside Syria which will happen only if Russia protects the refugees.

    The Alawites become refugees the minute Assad is deposed; they too, will need safety.

  26. johnmoore:

    We are facing several ideologies that cannot be dealt with by being push-overs.

    Putin, with his Eurasianism, wants to restore the "glory" and power of the former USSR. He is not kidding. That his economy sucks shouldn't give us comfort - we have suffered substantially in the past from countries with weak economies - such as Japan in World War II. The Soviet economy was also pretty poor, and they cost us many tens of thousands of dead soldiers and hundreds of thousands of wounded, while at the same time directly threatening to destroy us. Putin would be happy to see the US defanged. Many of us went to Vietnam but survived. Others did not.

    Iran is at least very imperialistic. They also may very well be "on a mission from God" but we can't be sure. Either way, they consider us their number one enemy, and over the last 30 years have killed or helped to kill over a thousand Americans. They use terror as a state policy, and they have executed terrorist attacks in the West including Argentina. They have ethnic, religious, economic and imperialistic motives to destabilize and destroy the regimes of the Sunni oil states. If they do so, or try a bit harder, we will have another oil shock, and because oil is so fungible, our fracking isn't going to save us from 1970's style economic shocks. Iran is also in bed with Russia.

    Iran controls the Lebanese Hezbollah (along with Iraqi Hezbollah, Afghani Hezbollah and Iranian Hezbollah). Lebanese Hezbollah has carried out terror attacks around the world, and is driven by religious frenzy and Iran's hegemonic goals. It is now battle hardened, being used in Syria to assist the government forces (along with other Iranian Shiite groups).

    ISIS is acting on classic Islamist ideology/theology. They are deadly serious and they truly believe things that sound absurd to our Western ears. This is why they have so many "martyrs" and why Al Qaeda, from which the grew, was able to attack us on 9-11 with 19 terrorists willing to die for their cause. Islamist movements appear repeatedly in history. In the current era, the Internet and modern travel and other technology make them more deadly than they have been in a long time. Al Qaeda worked on biological warfare with a US trained PhD. ISIS has chemical weapons (inherited from Saddam) and has used them. They are a real problem.

    North Korea has its Juche ideology, which is a fascist/communist state religion that also creates fanatics willing to die for the Dear Leader god. Juchi is just as radical is ISIS/Al Qaeda Sunni Islmism ans Iranian "twelver" eschatological craziness. It has nuclear weapons and IRBM's and has successfully launched two satellite to low earth orbit where they cross the US several times a day. It is closely allied with Iran. North Korea constantly threatens to destroy us.

    China is not longer strongly ideological, but they are very dangerous because they are so big, and so capable.

    If Syria were the only issue, this strike might not have been necessary. The message being sent to the whole world is that the US is not going to tolerate dangerous actions any more. Obama was so stupid in his foreign policy that
    the whole world believed they could ignore the US, at best being just inconvenienced by us. Our
    enemies made substantial gains because we didn't want to use force when it was needed. Iran is close to achieving its long desired "Shiite Crescent" - a land of Shiites stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. North Korea is close to having ICBM deliverable nuclear warheads

    Now they know they
    cannot count on us to be stupid any more. But it is no coincidence that the attack was as the President was dining with the Chinese enabler of a clear
    and present danger, North Korea.

  27. johnmoore:

    Ask the Chinese about the effect of that attack on their own geopolitical calculus.

  28. johnmoore:

    No, people are pointing this out because it is important. That a symbolic bombing *can* be stupid does not mean that this one was.

  29. johnmoore:

    Trump campaigned as an isolationist. He got into the White House and discovered how dangerous the world is, and has adapted remarkably quickly. Obama never adapted, which is why things are so dangerous now.

  30. johnmoore:

    The US attacked what is expensive and hard to replace: warplanes, their shelters and command, control and communications systems. Runways are too easily patched.

  31. johnmoore:

    Assad may have had nothing to gain, but *someone* had to test the resolve of the new President, and Assad dances to the tune of his Iranian masters, who didn't want to risk testing us directly.

    Did you notice that the statement condemning the attack was signed by Iran, Syria and *Hezbollah*? Hezbollah is an Iranian controlled terrorist army.

  32. August Hurtel:

    Oh, this was stupid. Sure, your comment is technically correct, but it ignores all of the evidence. This is why the people who keep talking about symbolism need to be reminded the symbolic nature of an act does not erase its idiotic nature.

  33. May Xu:

    "power elite" analysis to understand the relationship between money, power, and war.

    The federal budget did not shrink. The federal bureaucracies did not
    shrink. The number of military bases outside the United States did not
    shrink. Conservatives did not suggest a shrinking federal government.
    They demanded more — just slower. This was American conservatism after
    December 7, 1941.