The past week has been an immensely clarifying — and profoundly demoralizing — one in American politics. It has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the country’s foreign policy establishment, along with its leading center-right and center-left politicians and pundits, are hopelessly, perhaps irredeemably, deluded about the role of the United States in the world.
From the start of the 2016 Republican primaries on down through Donald Trump’s surprise electoral college victory, the transition, and the opening months of his administration, members of this foreign policy establishment and these leading politicians and pundits have been united in expressing dismay and alarm about Trump’s lack of temperamental and intellectual fitness to serve as commander-in-chief. Yet the moment Trump gave the order to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase used in a chemical weapons attack a few days earlier, all was forgotten and forgiven. Finally Trump became president! Finally he put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his place! Finally the U.S. showed it had moved beyond former President Barack Obama’s reluctance to use military force!
It’s hard to know where to begin in formulating a response to this outpouring of delight at the thought of Trump giving the order to launch a barrage of deadly weapons at a sovereign nation over 5,000 miles from American shores. But let’s start with absolute basics: Launching even one missile at another country is not, as we euphemistically like to presume, a “military action,” a “military operation,” or even a “humanitarian intervention.” It is an act of war. Full stop. That many countries in the world, including Syria, are far too weak to consider launching a retaliatory counter-attack against the United States for such a bombardment is utterly irrelevant. How would a more powerful country — China, for example — respond if we fired even one cruise missile at its territory? How, for that matter, would we respond if China fired just one at us?
The answer is patently obvious: We would respond furiously, and with complete justification, because it would be an act of war. How people who spend their lives thinking about international affairs can write about America’s actions in the world without placing this fact at the center of their analysis is nothing short of astonishing — and a confession that their thinking is really a form of ideological propaganda that places the United States in a different category from every other country in the world. (American exceptionalism might be a relatively salutary civic myth, but it is a myth all the same. It has no business playing a role in the policy recommendations of informed analysts.)
Unconvinced? Then consider another basic fact: The aforementioned foreign policy and centrist establishments were united in considering Obama averse to using American military might. Yet during the eight years of his presidency, Obama bombed at least nine countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the Central African Republic, and the Philippines.
If that’s what “reluctance” to use force looks like, I wonder what it would take for these critics to call someone a warmonger.
What these critics really mean is that Obama didn’t embrace a policy of overthrowing governments around the world (“regime change”), and that he didn’t think it was a good idea (either for the U.S. domestically or for our relations with the rest of the world) to brag in moralistic terms about our motives in seeking to advance our interests militarily (which Obama mainly did with targeted drone strikes and the selective deployment of special operations forces).
The exception, of course, was in Libya, where three senior members of the foreign policy establishment and the Obama administration (Hillary Clinton, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Susan Rice) persuaded the president to help rebels topple the government of Moammar Gadhafi. When events ended up unfolding like a rerun of the Iraq War’s disastrous aftermath in miniature (with its own unique horrors), Obama’s instinctual aversion to regime change and moral grandstanding reasserted itself, leading him to resist repeated calls to cripple or overthrow Assad’s government in Syria. The president would bomb areas of the country that were controlled by ISIS, but he would not act to remove Assad for fear that the result would lead to even worse consequences than the Syrian civil war itself.
The establishment’s reaction has been uniformly negative about that decision, which is a major reason why there was such an outpouring of joy and relief when President Trump reversed course and did what Obama had steadfastly refused to do for over five years: target assets of the Assad government. If there was a criticism to be heard, it was that Trump’s missile strike was too limited in scope. Never mind that neither the Trump administration nor any prominent analyst presented a convincing strategy for using American bombs to bring the civil war to a sustainably peaceful conclusion. All that mattered was that the U.S. finally did something, and that this something would continue and expand. “More, please!” — that’s what most of the commentary has amounted to.
I’m sorry, but this is madness.
To see why, imagine an alternative history of the American Civil War. In 1861 the southern part of the United States launches an insurrection against the central government and declares its independence. The leader of the central government decides to put it down. The result is several years of bloody conflict that eventually leaves approximately 600,000 people, or 2 percent of the total population, dead (that’s about six million people in contemporary terms).
Now imagine there was a country on the other side of the globe in the 1860s that took a keen interest in the conflict and was powerful enough to intervene in the war. The citizens in this country half a world away debate furiously whether to try and “stop the killing” by joining the battle. They have no plan to resolve the underlying issues feeding the violence, but some think it would be desirable to punish the evil deeds committed by one side or the other, or perhaps to punish those who use one kind of weapon or another in prosecuting the war. Some even insist that the case for intervention in the distant conflict is so obvious that the burden of proof should fall on those who oppose it.
In the end, this super-powerful country decides that it makes most sense to pursue “regime change.” So it launches an attack that adds to the death toll and eventually leads to the overthrow of the central government, allowing the southern region to prevail.
The point isn’t to equate Assad to Abraham Lincoln. Go ahead and imagine the opposite scenario if you wish: Perhaps the moral busybodies on the other side of the planet are less moved by the claim to self-determination asserted by the American South than they are by Lincoln’s noble speech at Gettysburg, so instead of pummeling Washington they bombard Richmond and contribute to an easy victory for the North.
The point is that regardless of which side the outside power favors, it has anointed itself the moral arbiter of the world, a position that grants it the authority to mete out justice and punishment to individuals and nations as it sees fit — and this despite the fact that no one elected this power to that ruling position, or even asked the world if it wished to offer its consent.
Every country in the world thinks well of itself. But we’re the only country in the world that expects every other country to defer to our self-evident wonderfulness — apparently even when Trump is launching the missiles.
Not every problem in the world has a solution, just as not every injustice in the world is our problem. This has always been the case. But with a reckless, incompetent president prosecuting a foreign policy of “impulse and whim,” it has perhaps never been more important to remind ourselves of these truths, and of the pressing need to tame our boundless national self-regard.
More than eight years after Obama’s first inaugural address, we still haven’t set aside our childish things.
This article originally appeared on TheWeek.com.