The news out of Syria is disturbing: President Bashar Assad stands accused of killing — gassing — his own people. So too the news from Washington. Consider a recent zinger: “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
Years from now, when the inevitable and inevitably gaudy Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Museum opens its doors, that quotation from our leader ought to occupy a place of prominence. Uttered in response to Vladimir Putin’s murderous actions but applicable to all manner of atrocities, it contains considerable wisdom, even if coming from a most unlikely source.
Most Americans, I dare say, do not see Trump as a purveyor of deep truths. Even before formally entering politics, he had acquired a well-deserved reputation as a vulgar provocateur. These days much of what he says (or tweets) is sheer nonsense. When off-script, he tends to be off the wall. Trump regularly and in all likelihood knowingly contradicts himself. He makes George W. Bush look like a deep thinker.
Yet Trump’s unvarnished candor in acknowledging that America is not “so innocent” has potentially profound implications for U.S. policy. He is, after all, the nation’s commander-in-chief, invested with responsibility for employing (or holding in abeyance) American military power.
The argument that the exercise of power in international politics necessarily incurs guilt is a familiar one. Even morally justifiable purposes, such as liberating Europe from Nazi occupation, entail morally problematic acts.
Yet rarely, if ever, has a sitting president made the point so bluntly. After all, Franklin Roosevelt did not apologize for the strategic bombing campaign that flattened German cities during World War II. Whatever qualms FDR may have had about thereby killing tens of thousands of noncombatants he kept to himself, as did his various successors. Until now at least. Trump, as is his wont, dares to say aloud what others pass over in silence. As a people, we are, in fact, anything but innocent.
Today the United States condemns the intentional killing of civilians in wartime. In the past, it killed civilians in far greater numbers than does Assad. One explanation for the shift in official thinking on this issue is that in a more enlightened era moral considerations carry greater weight than they once did. An alternative explanation is that emphasizing noncombatant immunity works to the benefit of a nation that at huge cost has amassed an arsenal of precision weapons.
Having become better at targeting, we want to capitalize on that advantage. So as former practitioners of carpet-bombing, we now reproach anyone daring to drop barrel bombs out of helicopters. In effect, as the preferred American mode of waging war has changed, so too have the norms to which U.S. policymakers profess to subscribe, a process that is itself not “so innocent.”
For any morally serious person, this disparity between America’s recent words and past actions complicates the question of what the United States should do given the evidence that the Assad regime has once again used chemical agents against its own citizens. What is the obligation of our not “so innocent” nation? By attributing this atrocity to his predecessor’s “weakness and irresolution,” Trump himself implies that the United States has incurred some such obligation, even if thus far he shows no inclination to act on it.
Blaming Obama is a poor excuse for policy. Might there be a better approach, one qualifying as both moral and effective?
Assad is, of course, a particularly contemptible despot. So too, of course, was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Even if we take seriously the moral arguments mustered for toppling Hussein, employing force to do so produced an epic disaster. Costs vastly exceeded benefits. Even today, the people of Iraq continue to pay a heavy price for the Bush administration’s hubris and folly. In Libya, the overthrow of Muammar Kadafi, another contemptible despot, produced a similar disaster, this one laid at the feet of the Obama administration.
Both morally and strategically, employing violence as an antidote to Arab repression has proven to be a bust. So anyone proposing that the United States have another go at it, this time targeting Assad, should think long and hard. We don’t need more war in the Middle East. War hasn’t worked.
My vote for an alternative: Follow the German model.
When you compare American behavior in Franklin Roosevelt’s day to that of Hitler’s Germany, the balance sheet clearly favors the United States. Yet to compare recent American behavior with that of Angela Merkel’s Germany, not so much. The German response to the plight of Syrians caught in the middle of a terrible civil war has been simplicity itself: Provide sanctuary to the displaced.
Germany has thereby saved literally hundreds of thousands of lives. If it chose to do so, the United States could do likewise. What the Syrian people need is not more bombs but more visas — one way of making partial amends for our own not “so innocent” past.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.
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