Journalists, pundits and the casual observer all had something in common in the wake of the US bombing of the Al-Shayrat airfield in Syria. Especially in the first few hours, before ideology and orthodoxy could set in, none of us knew what to make of it.
Many of Trumps more odiously vocal supporters are outraged. Leading figures of the Alt-Right were quick to condemn the attack and Trump as “just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet.”
They view this as a betrayal of the American isolationism Trump paid lip-service to throughout his presidential campaign.
Many establishment Republicans have praised Trumps actions. Even leading figures in Democratic party initially responded with guarded praise, tempered by the lack of Congressional approval and the hypocrisy of an administration that shuts its doors to victims of the Syrian conflict but uses their suffering to justify military action.
Public response has been predictably incensed. Hysterical declarations of the Third World War were issued, conspiracies that posit that the chemical weapons used in Syria were part of a ‘false-flag’ operation now run rampant through the veins of the internet. In short, we all responded as expected. Except for Trump, whose opposition to American to intervention in Syria has in the last 36 hours been painstakingly documented.
Many have called Trump hypocritical for his yielding to the interventionist foreign policy that Obama had rejected. The truth seems far more dangerous. We have no reason to believe that Trump was disingenuous in his opposition all these years. The volume and consistency of this opposition indicates a genuine, if occasionally incoherent, sentiment.
Indeed, the Trump campaign did push the narrative that voting for Hillary Clinton would be a vote for a war hawk, who would lead America back into the quagmires of the Middle East.
Unfortunately this is not hypocrisy. The Trump administration was, until the use of chemical weapons, making overtures towards re-legitimizing al-Assad.
It seems the crucial factor in this foreign policy reversal is in the videos of Syrian victims of chemical warfare. His description of the attacks was uncharacteristically lucid.
“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
A noble sentiment. One that does seem to require that those opposed to Trump acknowledge that he is not an evil man. Not yet at any rate. He is pompous, narcissistic, vulgar and profoundly ignorant. His psyche seems the closest to a tinpot dictator America has ventured in a very long time. But, despite his rancid proximity to evil, he is no Vladimir Putin. Not yet.
The majority of the positions Trump has adopted thus far have been more or less boilerplate Republican. Under any other president this would have been unfortunate for those Americans whose welfare, subsidies, abortion rights and childcare will be cut, but have little effect on the liberal world order. That Trump seems to have made a major foreign policy decision on impulse should concern us all. Assad using chemical weapons is an arbitrary line to draw, when joint Russo-Syrian forces are routinely bombing schools and hospitals. This new American interventionism of Trumps is propelled purely by public relations and the visceral reactions we all share in seeing children gassed to death. Under any other president, Republican or Democrat, this action would be nearly unanimously praised.
One of the darkest aspects of the Obama years is in his refusal to hold al-Assad to account, even after the now infamous ‘red-line’ on chemical weapons was crossed.
He had the power to limit civilian deaths and de-escalate the Syrian Civil War and in a fit of presidential pique he chose not to, largely because doing so would heavily alienate the Democratic base. In a profile by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic Obama claimed to be “very proud of this moment”, when he chose to break with the “Washington playbook”.
Obama is frequently described in the press and on television as thoughtful and dignified. He seems in this instance to pride himself on his independence from conventional wisdom.
However, his decision to leave Syrians to the mercy of their tyrant reflects a growing and perhaps even dominant strain of thought among citizens of Western democracies.
This is that they have no business involving themselves in ‘regional conflicts’. Those who argue for the necessity of intervention in a purely pragmatic sense; to curb Russian or Chinese or Iranian impulses are accused of war-mongering, as was done to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. More worryingly, those who make the far more principled case for Jeffersonian democracy; the intentional expansion of human rights and democratic forms of government, are labelled Western Imperialists.
This line of thinking is best represented in the points and person of Noam Chomsky. It carries with it an antipathy to Western military force that largely stems from the Vietnam War. More often that not it requires citation of the incompetence with which the Iraq war was handled and how that incompetence ‘created ISIS’. Those who paid attention will be quick to point out that Iraq was a significantly more stable country when Barack Obama was inaugurated and that it was not until the US withdrew its forces in 2011 that Jihadists regained their ground. The withdrawal of American troops at its core boils down to a shortfall of popular support and a poverty of political will.
Most citizens of liberal democracies will defend the value of liberty and democratic institutions. If asked in a non-committal sense if they would prefer if the Middle East was more democratic you would be hard pressed to find a mainstream voice arguing against it. The burden of tyranny on the peoples of the Middle East are clear even from our current, detached distance. This much is evident in the short-lived hope many of us felt in the initial stages of the Arab Spring in 2011. Finally these dictators would be overthrown by their peoples. We all know how that ended.
Fundamentally we want people to be free from tyranny. We would just prefer if they managed to make themselves free without bothering us.
This is a dangerously immoral position to hold and it is one that is profoundly ignorant of historical reality.
Our culture and sketchy educations have painted a poor picture of revolution. We think of the success of the Enlightenment and American revolution as having sprung forth, from the hearts and minds of ‘the people’, like Athena from Zeus. In truth, they were complex interactions between pragmatic political actors, some of whom happened to support revolutions. The American revolution, frequently idealized as the archetypal revolution, was largely motivated by the growing abolitionist sentiment in Great Britain. Coupled with tax raises, this moved the Thirteen Colonies to armed rebellion. And rebellion it would have remained were it not for the support of the French Monarchy, who supplied the Colonists with guns and ships and prevented British domination of the American coasts.
If we require a point of contrast; the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, was similiarly motivated by high taxes. It was put down by George Washington himself. This was a local rebellion without the support of a major power, and it was readily crushed.
Revolutions succeed, rebellions fail.
For decades however, popular culture and media has portrayed the fight for freedom as won by a small group of ‘rag-tag’ rebels. Luke Skywalker in his dinky X-Wing in Star Wars, the high school kids in Red Dawn. All it takes is resistance and rebellion. Grit and righteous determination light the path.
This view, though it makes for some very good films, has very poorly effected our collective understanding of revolutions. They are not spontaneous uprisings, certainly not the successful ones. Revolutions require sponsors, and allies. The nature of dictatorship and tyranny is inherently totalitarian. In a closed system where the tyrant has the guns, no people’s revolt will ever be successful. For the people of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, North Korea, China and countless others, they cannot free themselves, however much they may wish to.
Earlier I referred to Jeffersonian democracy as the antidote to the poisonously amoral isolationism of Chomsky and Trump supporters alike.
If we are to defend and uphold liberal democratic ideals at home, we have no excuse beyond necessity to abandon them abroad. If you believe that Western intervention into the Middle East is doomed to failure on practical grounds that is your right and you may indeed be right. But if you claim to oppose that intervention on moral grounds, on ‘principled’ opposition to ‘Western Imperialism’, whatever that fluffy phrase means, you are not viewing the costs of tyranny and dictatorship with a clear mind. Jefferson wrote of an ‘Empire of Liberty’, one committed to the freedoms of thought, speech and association required in free societies. Whatever its faults, and they are many, the application of this Empire of Liberty has never approached the cruelty and malice of the Communist and fascist empires it opposed through the 20th century. It is a grave injustice to those who hope for liberty to even compare it to the theocratic empires that it faces today.
As free societies we failed those brave men and women who stood for their freedom in the Arab Spring. We routinely abandon homosexuals, atheists, women and all freethinkers to the molestation of theocrats and dictators.
There is never a better time to acknowledge our failure and our cowardice. Thankfully the people f these nations are resilient. If we choose to we can, and I believe should, defend and support their rebellious, their dissidents and protesters. And when the revolutions come, if they come, we must ensure that they will not be improvised.