Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad apparently launched another chemical attack recently, and after a good deal of incoherent threatening, President Trump finally responded Friday with a barrage of airstrikes. Missiles and bombs launched from American jets and ships hit Syrian military installations, including suspected chemical weapons facilities and a command center. Russia, a close ally of Assad's regime, quickly warned of "consequences" for the U.S. So now Trump might not only get pulled further into the Syrian war, but have a good old-fashioned standoff with a nuclear superpower on his hands, with bloodthirsty maniac John Bolton at his side.
Here's an idea. Let's just stop all bombing, just to see how it works out. Perhaps we might even become as skeptical of blowing people up as today's bipartisan consensus is in favor of it.
The Trump presidency so far has featured a gruesome bloodbath of bombing deaths. The number of raids in Iraq and Syria have been drastically increased, and the rules of engagement have been drastically scaled back. Perhaps 6,000 civilians were killed by U.S. strikes in those countries in 2017, more than double that of 2016 — and according to an on-the-ground study, one in five coalition strikes resulted in a civilian death, a rate 31 times greater than the military casualty counts.
Why do we keep doing this? Partly it is down to Trump's pathological self-centeredness and desire for violent retribution. But it also reflects the lack of any consistent skepticism of military intervention in either party.
This is partly a product of history.
There used to be a strong strand of anti-war thinking in American politics. In the run-up to the Second World War, President Roosevelt had to negotiate delicately around a bloc of hardcore isolationists in Congress, who were dead against anything they thought might get the United States entangled in another foreign war. People like Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) argued, often fairly convincingly, that the entry into the First World War was a pointless bloodbath, and that America should steer clear of the next European charnel house. They were intensely suspicious of Roosevelt's proposals to arm and support Britain, especially as the U.S. had few armaments of its own at that point. The presidential election of 1940, when FDR faced off against Wendell Willkie, was fought largely over who would do the most to keep America out of foreign wars.
In hindsight, the isolationists missed that fascist Germany, Japan, and Italy were categorically different than the previous governments of Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary. The particular vileness of Hitler and the Nazis was especially overlooked, not least because many isolationists, like Charles Lindbergh, were sympathetic to fascism. So when war came from a sneak attack, the isolationists looked like near-traitorous fools. Isolationism was so discredited that it ceased to exist as a serious political ideology.
And yet … the Second World War is nearly the only war in American history when one can say isolationism was completely unwise. U.S. military history is stuffed with pointless, disastrous, or downright criminal major foreign conflicts, like the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War — and that's leaving aside a slew of minor coups, bombings, and interventions that achieved little or nothing good.
The Mexican-American War can be defended only on the cynical grounds that it was a straight-up robbery that paid off handsomely. Other wars that were at least arguably necessary, like the Korean War, might have had vastly fewer casualties if disastrously aggressive tactics had been avoided.
The modern American debate about foreign policy could badly stand a large dose of instinctive skepticism towards the use of military force. Isolationists were wrong about the Second World War. But they were no more wrong than the so-called humanitarian interventionists were about Iraq, Libya, Somalia, or Syria in the recent past. And that ideological school of thought has not been similarly discredited despite the repeated, gruesome failure of guns and bombs to achieve anything of lasting value in the War on Terror. On the contrary, 17 years of blood has barely dented the bipartisan consensus that views U.S. military force as good by definition.
One doesn't have to be a fervent anti-imperialist to question the value of the last 20 years of American foreign policy. A George Washington-style skepticism of "foreign entanglements" — updated to reflect the necessity of diplomacy and trade in a globalized world — would serve nearly as well. The U.S. has better things to do than repeatedly fail to solve various intractable political crises thousands of miles away by blowing people up semi-randomly. The tool is inadequate to the task, and those problems are not ones the U.S. military is qualified to solve.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 10:08 a.m. EST on April 14 to incorporate the latest news.