Here are some belated observations on President Trump’s recent decision to launch cruise missiles against Syria in retaliation for its use of a deadly gas against its own citizens:
Americans generally applaud the decision. And it’s an understandable, and laudable, response. It’s a reaction to years of a foreign policy that dealt with our enemies by means of conciliation, apology and appeasement. So people are heartened when a president seems to be acting resolutely in confronting a loathsome tyrant. Attacking Syria’s Assad is interpreted as a sign of strength, as a welcome act of American self-assertiveness. Trump is seen as forcefully defending America’s interests.
But this is a serious misinterpretation. Bombing Syria is actually detrimental to our interests. Not because it upsets our relationship with Russia. Not because there was no prior approval from the United Nations. And not because of the shibboleth that “force is not a solution to global problems.” Rather, it’s because of the standard by which Trump chose to justify the use of force.
Trump took military action against the Assad government, despite often declaring that he wouldn’t, because he was distraught over pictures of the victims of the chemical weapons, particularly children. Trump did not suddenly determine that U.S. interests were being jeopardized; he simply felt a duty to alleviate the Syrians’ suffering. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained several days after the attack: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”
In other words, if there is a conflict somewhere in the world, if warring factions are trying to impose their respective brands of oppression and are crushing innocent victims in the process, we will mitigate the destruction. This means that the basis for American involvement is not our self-interest, but the needs of others. It means that American wealth and America lives will be sacrificed for the sake of those in need. Plainly, this is not self-assertiveness, but selfless-assertiveness.
Syria poses little danger to the United States. But there are demonstrable threats to us elsewhere, such as from North Korea and Iran. A genuine act of self-assertiveness would be to eliminate those threats, which for a long time we have not only tolerated but actively abetted.
When a country’s foreign policy rests on no clear principles—when it’s an unpredictable and indecipherable hash of emotionalism, altruism and ad hoc machinations—when no firm guidelines exist to determine when we will or won’t use force—then “red lines” sprout up everywhere. And if America has an obligation to take action against “any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” then any failure to do so becomes evidence of weakness. If every evil committed by some vicious dictator is an assault against “America’s interests,” then inaction against such dictators shows a lack of will to uphold those “interests.”
If, however, we had a principled foreign policy, our government would understand that politically Americans have only one fundamental interest: their freedom—and that our policymakers’ sole task is to protect that freedom. When facing a situation like the one in Syria, therefore, they would morally condemn Assad’s tyranny while remaining true to the principle that we use force only when the liberty of Americans is threatened. They would refuse to treat Americans as selfless servants to the needs of the world. And they would make sure to employ force decisively against those who actually threaten us.
For a full explication of a proper foreign policy and of the meaning of a free country’s interests, see The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America.