The U.S. Teeters on the Edge of Another Catastrophic War

As editorial boards cheer him on, Trump is weighing action against the regime in Syria.

Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

Donald Trump repeatedly called his predecessor dumb for intervening in Syria. Congress has declined to vote to authorize a war in Syria. And the U.S. Armed Forces are now led by a commander in chief who lacks the experience, wisdom, steadfastness, and popular support to prosecute a complex war in a faraway country where a misstep could lead to regional conflagration or even nuclear world war.

Yet even as U.S. forces clash with Russian mercenaries on the ground in Syria, a growing chorus is urging President Trump to intensify America’s lawfully dubious presence there—to move on from the fight against ISIS to one against Syria’s regime—not because they believe that the symbolic, unlawful cruise-missile strike that Trump launched last April actually stopped Bashar al-Assad from gassing his own people, or that further American intervention will end or even shorten Syria’s civil war, but because in their horror they believe that it is unacceptable to do nothing.

“It’s time for another red line …” say the editors at Bloomberg. “Trump should tell Assad and his Russian backers that any more proved use of any chemical weapon, including chlorine, will be met with even greater retaliation than what happened in April. It certainly won’t end the fighting, in Eastern Ghouta or across the country, but it may take away one of Assad’s most unconscionable methods of terrifying his citizens.”

Should the U.S. have done more to stop the Rwandan genocide in the ‘90s? Yes. Should the U.S. pressure its Saudi allies to stop starving Yemenis today? Yes, immediately.

But the upside here—Assad possibly turning to slightly less unconscionable methods of terrifying his citizens in a possibly prolonged war—seems small when compared with the risk of U.S. intervention causing more death than it spares, as it has done before, or sparking a wider conflict with Iran or Russia, perhaps risking cataclysm even as a petulant neophyte sits in the White House tweeting whatever comes to mind. How can hawks who saw the mess that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld made of Iraq entrust a harder war to an even less experienced president—one who put Jared Kushner in charge of achieving peace in the Middle East?

Yet just that course appears to be under consideration, its unlawfulness be damned. “The Trump administration has considered new military action against the Syrian government in response to reports of ongoing chemical weapons use, officials said, raising the prospect of a second U.S. strike on President Bashar al-Assad in less than a year,” The Washington Post reports. “Trump requested options for punishing the Assad government after reported chlorine gas attacks—at least seven this year—and possibly other chemicals affecting civilians in opposition-controlled areas.”

Presidents are not supposed to wage war unilaterally, especially after Congress considered passing a war authorization, then declined, the proposition lacking support. Still, Senator Lindsey Graham is egging Trump on. Here he is Sunday on Face the Nation:

Lindsey Graham: We don’t have a strategy to contain Iran. They’re about to take over Damascus. He’s done a good job fighting ISIL. But Iran is now dominating the Mideast. Hezbollah elements being supplied by Iran have over 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel. The king of Jordan has suffered mildly from the Syrian civil war if we don’t push Iran out and come up with an agreement in Geneva that gives Syria back to the Syrians. This war never ends. So, Mr. President, it’s just not about defeating ISIL. If you leave Syria in the hands of Russia and the Iranians, this war never ends. And our friends in Israel and the world are hurt.

Margaret Brennan: Do you know where the president’s red line is on chemical weapons, which the Assad regime continues to use?

Graham: I thought it did. But I don’t any longer. Clearly he did use chemical weapons yet again. What I would like to see is a no-fly zone inside of Syria where people could go back to Syria from the surrounding neighborhood, and we would train Syrian Democratic Forces to take Assad on. And tell the Russians and the Iranians if you bomb these people you do so at your own peril and try to level out the chaos in Syria go to Geneva to get a peace agreement. You’ll never get an agreement in Geneva as long as Assad’s winning on the battlefield. Our policy in Syria is a complete mess. We’re AWOL when it comes to containing Russia and Iran and Syria as a real threat to the region.

Imposing a no-fly zone in Syria means American pilots risking their lives in an undeclared war that could conceivably require them to shoot down Russian planes.

That would be a reckless risk even in service of a plausible plan to restore peace. But Graham proposes it to enable the United States to attempt a Hail Mary pass: identifying a democratic force in Syria; training and supplying them such that their weapons don’t fall into the hands of violent, anti-Western extremists; and somehow preparing them to best a brutal regime backed by a determined Shiite ally and a nuclear power that is eager to thwart the United States.

President Johnson had better odds of winning in Vietnam.

What’s even more remarkable is that Graham expects a plan that would be a long shot under George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, or Dwight Eisenhower to succeed under a man he once called “a kook,” “crazy,” “unfit for office,” and lacking the “judgment” and “temperament” to be commander in chief.

What’s most remarkable is that Graham is urging this confrontation with Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies even as he urges a separate war with North Korea.

Precisely because there is no telling who Donald Trump will listen to or what he will do next—who is to say what Fox & Friends will recommend tomorrow morning?—Congress ought to cease its long abdication of its constitutional authority and insist on the total withdrawal of American forces from Syria, ending both the risk to the Americans stationed there and the chance that their presence will lead the United States into a quagmire (as have supposedly limited missions in the past) or a catastrophe that surpasses even the Iraq War and the Vietnam War before it.

Even if staying in Syria would be the right move under a different president—and the evidence for that proposition is very weak—it is certainly the wrong move under Trump, who has shown himself unwilling to learn even the basics of foreign affairs and proved again and again that he cares only about his own selfish interests. Many hawks are aware of his unfitness and yet act as if it is immaterial.

But why? An unfit commander in chief is sufficient reason in itself to refrain from starting a war.

That Democrats are not leading an anti-war effort already is baffling, for even their hawks believe in all earnestness that Trump is unfit to be commander in chief; Democrats have fared just fine over the last decade running against dumb wars; they lost the 2016 election after elevating the hawkish Hillary Clinton as their nominee; and nothing would separate Trump from his base like pointing out that he is violating a core proposition of his campaign by daily risking American blood and treasure in a faraway civil war, even as he does nothing for domestic infrastructure. Yet do Democrats even have an anti-war voice as prominent as Tucker Carlson?

The White House is in disarray, its national-security team is having trouble qualifying for security clearances, the State Department is a shell of its former self, a special counsel is implicating more and more of the president’s men and women in scandalous behavior, the nation is as bitterly divided as it has been in living memory, and an opiate epidemic is killing its working and lower classes by the tens of thousands. What more reckless time could there be to launch a new war of choice?