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 April 5, 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.”
Within days, 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. On Friday evening, the U.S. began an air campaign in concert with Britain and France.
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. So he elected to up the ante with a bigger attack.
But there is no reason to believe this bombing campaign will turn the tide 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.” But whether it escalates out of control may now be out of our hands.
It’s bad enough for the U.S. to enter into a fight with neither the means nor the appetite to achieve a victory. It’s far worse to risk 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. Syria is fully capable of providing more.
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/chapman.
Download “Recalculating: Steve Chapman on a New Century” at chicagotribune.com/ebooks