I’m frankly ambivalent about the US airstrikes in Syria. Arguably, they are an appropriately measured response to an atrocity. As long as they are no more than that—as long as they are a one-time demonstration and not a prelude to an expanded military intervention—then the US action doesn’t do much harm and may even do some good. But there should be no illusion that American military force can make a significant contribution to a solution to the Syrian tragedy. If there is a solution, it will involve painstaking diplomacy with a cast of unsavory characters. Such is the nature of international politics.
There’s also the small matter that the US attack on Syria is a clear violation of international law, no less than is the use of poison gas. This might seem like a quaint objection. There is a widespread, implicit assumption in this country that the United States of America is indeed above the law, that we’re simply not a country like all the others. But to my mind, the concept of the US as the self-appointed world gendarme, smiting bad guys that we identify ourselves, answerable only to ourselves, is arrogant, offensive and dangerous.
My ambivalence also reflects a distaste for the hypocrisy and double standards that enable our leaders to wax self-righteously about the crimes of others while ignoring our own. Sen. Lindsey Graham yesterday praised Trump’s action for its kinship with the instincts of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, much-praised as a beacon of moral clarity, oversaw an administration that aided and abetted Saddam Hussein in his use of chemical weapons in his war of aggression against Iran. I’m quite sure that neither Graham nor his friend Sen. John McCain ever had anything to say about that. Nor did they recoil at the thousands of civilian lives extinguished in the Bush-Cheney war on Iraq that they so enthusiastically promoted. Nor have they objected to the brutal disregard for civilian casualties that our Saudi allies have shown in their intervention in the Yemeni civil war, using weapons and intelligence made in the USA.
Then there’s Donald Trump, whose administration has already begun diluting Obama-era safeguards against excessive collateral damage caused by American military operations in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. I guess Trump hasn’t seen any photos of the many charred bodies left after American air power hit Mosul. No, we didn’t use poison gas. How much difference does that make to the victims?
So, let’s view this US humanitarian intervention in Syria with an appropriate mixture of hope, concern and cynicism.