What does it mean to find an event such as the bombing of Syria on Friday frightening? For over 150 years now, Americans have been lucky enough to view war from a safe distance, and this was no exception. The fear some of us felt was deep rather than acute. But the United States was choosing to take a terrible risk, that of escalating our intervention into a conflict with Russia, even before inspectors on the ground could get to work to establish what happened. Rarely have the powers that claim to be protecting us looked more irresponsible or sinister.
Let us start, though, by making the strongest case possible for why Donald Trump should have taken the course of action that he did. A despot, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, has allegedly violated a critical international norm against the use of chemical weapons. Allowing it to go unpunished might incentivize others to produce and stockpile chemical weapons. Waiting too long to act might give Assad too much time to prepare. Seeking permission from Congress would further delay things and would be unnecessary, since even the intervention of Libya took place without Congressional approval. Acting in concert with France and England confers greater legitimacy to the effort. Keeping the strikes strictly limited lowers the chances of causing harm to Russian forces and setting off a wider conflict.
As for accusations that Trump is taking a “Wag the Dog” approach to the effort, using foreign conflict to distract us from investigations into Trump by special counsel Robert Mueller, these seem, upon consideration, far-fetched. First of all, England and France, who joined us in the attack, have no interest in protecting Trump. Second, barring an escalation into deeper war, the news cycle will move on in a few days, while the Mueller investigation will continue. Third, and most important, is that Trump’s most important support comes from his deplorables, who by and large oppose the effort. To be sure, the establishment has quietly backed Trump’s decision, but the establishment is precisely what Trump’s base hates.
So—yes—there was a case to be made for Trump’s decisions if you accept the conventional framing of the problem. But why, in 2018, with the record of our intelligence community and our elected officials, should anyone blindly accept the official framing of the problem?
The most important thing to establish before taking action was that a chemical attack had taken place and that Assad was behind it. I spent the days following the first reports looking for independent verification of the claims being made. I could find none. As of Friday, when the missile strikes took place, we had nothing but assurance from interested parties. The New York Times editorial board cited the World Health Organization as an authority, but the W.H.O. was merely citing reports, not drawing on its own findings. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was due to start investigating the attack this Saturday. The missiles struck even before the O.P.C.W. could start its work, let alone conclude it.
One of Trump’s scarce virtues was a lack of reverence for conventional wisdom. While it inevitably gave Trump a weakness for conspiracy theories—once you’ve decided the official narrative isn’t to be trusted, then you have no choice but to consider a thousand alternative kooky offerings—it also imbued him with a much-needed sense of skepticism. But no such doubt was evident here.
The line between conspiracy mongering and skepticism may sometimes look thin, but it’s real, and it’s critical. The former leads to catastrophe, but the latter prevents catastrophe. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we saw countless silly theories about why the U.S. was doing it: that George W. Bush wanted to avenge his father; that the U.S. wanted to steal Iraq’s oil; that Dick Cheney wanted to benefit Halliburton, to take a few. But you didn’t need to embrace any of these dumb takes in order to have a healthy skepticism toward the official line. All you needed to do was demand strong evidence in support of the claim that Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical weapons and that the United States knew where they were. Unfortunately, those who questioned this evidence were ostracized.
The Syrian conflict is a noxious cauldron of fanatics and schemers and hidden alliances. We know that there are players who wish to see the United States intervene in the conflict. We know that there are players who themselves wish to intervene in the conflict. A week ago, we learned that someone had bombed a Syrian base outside of Homs. Israel emerged as the likeliest suspect, but it refused to comment. With so many calculations and players operating with their own agendas, it’s all the more crucial to scrutinize every report and allegation with skepticism and extreme care. This didn’t happen.
Now the missile strikes are done. We survived. We seem likely to leave it at that. Russian forces were not, it seems, harmed. We’re lucky, even if many Syrians were not. But this was a violation of international law and a violation of Constitutional restraints. It was a betrayal of any pledges of non-interventionism. And it was a victory of those who demand that, after Iraq, the United States learn nothing about restraint, humility, or skepticism. You could make a decent, if debatable, case for striking Syria, once investigators had established the facts. What happened instead looked like an effort to pre-empt such efforts. That’s why it felt—and feels—menacing. George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me, you can’t get fooled again.” Well, he was wrong about everything else, and he was wrong about that, too. If this brief intervention in Syria turns out to do any good—which we all hope it does—it’s not because we asked the right questions.