As has been said a million times since 9/11, the “war on terror” is unlike any war America has faced. And, yet, war is war and some things don’t change – not even with Donald Trump at the helm (as frightening as that thought is).
That we act globally should be no surprise to anybody who has studied American foreign policy over the past century. George Washington’s concern about “foreign entanglements” and our once sacred Monroe Doctrine were abandoned long ago. America has acted globally since World War I a hundred years ago. If this fact ever needed punctuation, the war on terror put a period on the end of that sentence.
My own perspective about foreign policy extends back to that bygone era. I have been a non-interventionist most of my career (perhaps the only thing I’ve held in common with libertarians besides free markets). But that position has been more ideological than practical and, as most of America already knew, completely unrealistic. While I appreciate the spirit of “America First,” as I’ve said before, we cannot escape the moral obligation to put human beings first. Yes, we have to protect our constitutional government and American exceptionalism but all of that is meaningless if we cannot express these values in precisely the way they matter most. When Americans have the wherewithal to put our finger on the scale of life to relieve suffering, we are obliged to do it. Yes, we do it prudently, but we do it.
Opposing U.S. intervention in World War II in Europe was a relatively easy political decision until we realized that the Nazis were exterminating a race of people and then that easy political decision became an easy moral decision. The world is a nasty place, for sure, and we cannot remedy every injustice. In addition to the practical limitations of circumstance and resources, we choose not to remedy every injustice because we understand that people and nations grow and learn from experience. So, no, we typically don’t intervene when a riot breaks out in a foreign country or a dictator has his way with people. We figure that is their business and they need to learn from their mistakes.
But this rational distancing from “foreign entanglements” ceases in irrational cases of human suffering and atrocity. America might not intervene when European nations are perpetually at war among themselves. But we do intervene when Jews are being mass exterminated. And, I should add, the moral case for intervention does not disappear when American leaders choose not to intervene when they should. For instance, our moral failure to intervene in the Sudan does not justify our failure elsewhere to protect other people from other atrocities.
These moral justifications to intervene do not make us the world’s policemen. They make us an example of freedom and human decency. We might choose to not intervene because we lack the best circumstances and resources to do so effectively but we should want to nonetheless. Our hearts should break because we’re unable to help.
Trump did the right thing to bomb that Syrian air base and he would continue to do the right thing if he set America on a course to get rid of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. As a matter of good policy, if our justifiable goal is to destroy ISIS, we have to take away their bases of operation. We cannot let them nest. We need these human cockroaches out in the light of day if we want to stomp them. I know we used that justification in Iraq and it didn’t go well for us. But blame strategy and its execution, not the goal. Only cowards and idiots would withdraw from moral obligations or protecting the national interest because one plan and its execution failed. The failure rightly gives us pause but it should not make us lose our sense of morality in protecting victims of atrocity or protecting our national interests.
It is one thing to let nations, like all people, work out their lives and to find their purpose and identity. It is quite another thing when, through atrocities, that search for happiness and meaning is made impossible. It is one thing to let Syrians work out their politics, even through civil war, but it is quite another thing for Assad to use sarin nerve gas in that struggle. The typical argument against U.S. missile strikes is that they might harm civilians. Is that not the same argument to stop Assad’s use of chemical weapons?
U.S. foreign policy and strategic military interventions require ever-changing priorities, shifting trade-offs and many difficult decisions made on the fly. But our sense of decency should never waiver. All war is sad and ugly. A lot of wars are unjustified. But stopping atrocity is justified. And, if military warnings, like bombing the Syrian air base, are not enough to stop these atrocities, further action is justified. That is not being war-like. That is being Christ-like. If this nation and this people are moved to provide humanitarian assistance around the world, does not that humanitarian assistance include stopping mass genocide? If it doesn’t, we need to redefine humanitarian.