Last week, the air force of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, a London-trained physician, deployed chemical weapons (presumably Sarin, a dreadfully toxic nerve agent) against civilians in Idlib province, killing over 80 men, women, and children in an agonizing way. The use of such deadly chemical agents in warfare has been proscribed by the Geneva Convention since 1925. Not surprisingly, this appears to be of no moment in the Muslim Arab world, given earlier slaughters of many more Syrians by Assad throughout 2013 and the mass murder of Kurds by Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1988 and others in 1991. Even the pronouncement of an American “red line” by President Barack Obama in 2012, apparently promising teeth-laden consequences for its violation, did nothing to dampen Syria’s readiness to deal death from the sky via poison against its own people.
Enter new President Donald Trump, who, in short order, responded to Syria’s evildoing (aided by its Russian ally, no doubt, who wittingly or not failed to sequester all of Syria’s chemical munitions, as per an agreement with the U.S.) by releasing a 59 cruise-missile fusillade against the Syrian airbase used to launch the chemical-weapons attack. Much of the world is now aseethe with gratitude, overt and covert, for American leadership in dealing with such a brutal tyrant’s brutal onslaught. And yet some of America’s high-minded elites are equally aseethe with criticism and scare-mongering about America’s boldness in acting to enforce the near-universal disavowal of and revulsion against the use of toxic agents.
Did Trump act capriciously and without due constitutional warrant? What does this act of retaliation presage if Assad acts out again? What is America’s proper role to play in this Syrian civil war that has claimed a half a million lives in six years? Is America ready to engage in another ground war in the Muslim world? If so, in pursuit of which clearly defined national interests? How should the U.S. respond if Russia becomes “aroused” militarily in response? Many people are now atwitter with uncertainty and insecurity.
What is clear is that the most vituperative declared enemies of the U.S., Iran and North Korea, have taken notice of our greater willingness to take aggressive military action in defense of our core humanitarian and geopolitical objectives. No doubt our larger, but ultimately no less adversarial, “competitors” – Russia and China – have noticed too. It’s never too late to make a strong impression, presumably, on the world stage, at least as long as America’s armed forces maintain both a suitable reach and obvious prowess.
Now that American tactical missiles have flown, China likely has a greater incentive to help rein in North Korea’s burgeoning ballistic-missile testing program and bombastic rhetoric. As well, perhaps Russia has some increased motivation to exert veto power over Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction against innocent civilians in terror attacks. While America can never be the world’s policeman, even in the defense of democracy and human rights, and should never again purport to take on the role of nation-builder in any non-Western society, it is manifestly clear that a strong, vigilant, and ready enforcer of key humanitarian agreements and mutual defense treaties is essential to the maintenance of international security and humane civilization itself. The United Nations has proven itself time and time again to be feckless and highly dysfunctional in dealing with internecine conflicts, and there are today no cohesive regional mutual-security organizations that could fulfill that role in either the Middle East or Asia. The only force that can dampen, if not end, the mad enthusiasms of barbarian dictators is a superpower nation endowed with the superior military means, purity of purpose, and national will to safeguard the collective peace and the well-established norms of civil society in the world. Collective security is a grand, time-honored notion in this vein, assuming a cohort of ready, willing, and able partners, but it always takes a lion to organize any troop of sheepdogs. By default, that role in the second decade of the 21st century must fall to the United States under Donald Trump; just as in 1939, the peace of the world is at stake and the task is mighty. Sadly, there is still no inoculum against the rising return of savagery and barbarism practiced on a national scale somewhere in the world — with the threat, if not countered quickly and effectively, of more to come. Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, all with Russian and/or Chinese enablement. The clock is ticking, and the noise cannot help but get louder — and perhaps very much louder, soon.