US Strike on Syria: Meaningless, Impotent, Illegitimate?

This photo was provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center to the Associated Press. AP authenticated the photo "based on its contents and other AP reporting."

First, I need to get it off my chest: It is extremely uncomfortable to share any opinion at all with Ann Coulter. That said, she’s right about Syria, although for the wrong reasons.

Coulter and her right-wing company are isolationists, and I am not. Still, it seems to me that the consistent and utter failure of America’s many Middle East interventions should have taught the establishment something by now. American military action in the region has been a mistake not just a few times, not just preponderantly, but every single time in a staggeringly long list of engagements.

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It tears at the heart to see video footage of children struggling to take their final breaths after exposure to chemical weapons. Every American should have recognized, as soon as those unusually grisly images were released, that something military was in the offing; we no longer see the results of war on TV, especially our own wars. Still, upon seeing those pictures, the instant urge is to do something about it. But what? Nothing in kind will ever suffice. An eye for an eye means, I suppose, gassing the children of some of Bashar al Assad’s supporters. It means if someone steals my stereo system, I should steal his TV set. That would be a kind of rough justice, but it wouldn’t settle anything, even my own anger. The American response was not to gas any children. Neither, however, was it to take in anyone, even a child, as a war refugee from Syria. It was to “send a message” to Assad with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of missiles aimed at an airfield that was back in operation the next day.

Congress must approve any action in Syria.

Let’s put ourselves in Assad’s mind for a moment and read the message. What was this guy, Trump, trying to say? That he’s willing to go to war with me, and with my ally, Russia? I don’t think so. That chemical weapons are out of bounds? Well, OK, but we have lots of ways to butcher people, and my chemical arsenal is mostly intact. Maybe that if we do this again, he’ll open a front with American troops against me? He doesn’t appear to have the military resources to fight ISIS and me at the same time. Anyway, he would only buy a lot of problems, including the issue of the Kurds and Turks, with me gone. I don’t think he’s really into this. I think those missiles were politically powerful in the US and militarily impotent here.

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Now let’s look at the situation from the standpoint, not of Donald Trump, but of someone who sincerely wants to put America first among all priorities. Broadly speaking, America has three interests in the Middle East. The first is oil, which has motivated most American activity there for the last many years, and which is entirely illegitimate. The second is the security of Israel, which is perfectly legitimate, but which has led most of the American leadership to put Israel far ahead of America in Middle East affairs and to endorse every wrongheaded, bellicose and even cruel action of every right-wing government that the country elects.

Finally, there is the stability of the neoliberal world order, a concern that is sometimes vague but always powerful, as it has underlain American foreign policy since the Second World War. The legitimacy of this last element is seriously questioned on both ends of the political spectrum, globalization having had mixed economic consequences. Many scholars and policy makers not only believe that the America-led world order is at an end but that Trump himself is a symptom of that end.

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Which of these interests is served by the air strike? None. So the strike really was a moral statement about all those people killed and hurt in a chemical-weapons attack? If that is the case, it was a lame and awkward gesture, saving no life or injury but raising questions about US intentions in a conflict that was already an unfathomable puzzle.

If Trump wants to do something — anything — in Syria, he needs Congressional authorization. Some members of Congress have pointed this out, but done nothing about it.

Any action also needs to be part of a comprehensive policy. That policy needs to be clearly explained to the American public, and thus to the world. There is no evidence that such a policy exists. Trump says he likes to be unpredictable, which is a convenient thing to say for someone who has no plan. For the US to be unpredictable is a terrible, destabilizing, crazy idea. It is the antithesis of leadership at a time when American leadership is needed.