If you're like me, you have been wrestling with a multitude of conflicting thoughts and emotions since the news broke last night that the United States had launched a substantial cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base. So, as I often do when my mind is going into overdrive, I wanted to lay it all out in writing. Doing so is incredibly helpful for me, and I hope you can find some benefit in it as well.
Thought #1: Trump's First Strike
Escalating military action is always a scary thing, and the danger is amplified when that action takes place in the complex geopolitical hornet's nest that is the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. And then you add in the fact that the commander-in-chief is currently Donald Trump, and the concern escalates to the verge of terror. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that my first response leaned less towards "well that's interesting" and more towards "what is that lunatic doing? He'll kill us all!" I spent quite a while venting with friends about proxy wars, Russia's reaction, and the probability of World War 3 happening in our lifetimes.
And while that may sound just the tiniest bit hyperbolic, here's the thing: we have no idea what American military action is going to look like under Donald Trump. The man himself has been a walking contradiction when it comes to interventionism. This is the guy who loves to bluster about American military might, our need to start "winning" again, and his desire to ramp up our nuclear arsenal. And yet a major point of his campaign was his "America first" mentality and the need to stop being to world's police force. He also famously went after Obama on Twitter back in 2013, saying the president would be foolish to attack Syria:
I don't necessarily hold it against Trump that he changed his mind; clearly, there's a huge difference between being a private citizen with no responsibility on the world stage and being the man controlling the most powerful military on earth. And he's not the first president to take action contradicting earlier statements. But the dramatic nature of this about-face on policy is concerning, especially since Trump has shown a willingness to change his approach based on the latest cable news talking points.
And these tweets aren't the only glaring evidence of hypocrisy in Trump's actions. After launching the assault last night, Trump went on national TV and spoke about how his decision was driven by the images of the civilians, including children, who lost their lives what the Assad regime unleashed a chemical weapon attack on its own people. This leads me to...
Thought #2: How dare you.
Donald Trump spoke in sincere and even religious tones about the horrible deaths in Syria, saying that "no child of God should ever suffer such horror." And you know what, religiosity aside, I agree with that 100%. But for the president to claim the moral high ground on the treatment of Syrian civilians after demonizing their refugees and attempting time and again to deny them access to sanctuary in our country is appalling. Trump and his surrogates have said time and again that Syria is a country that is using our refugee program to send terrorists into the US, despite there being zero evidence of that happening. He has gone out of his way to make Americans and people around the world scared of these people who have lost their homes, their families, and their livelihoods.
And now, after taking military action and further fostering the dangerous environment that leads to Syrians becoming refugees in the first place, he dares to talk about the poor Syrian babies and children? I know Trump's fans have adopted the term "deplorable," but I can't find a better word for what he has done. Mr. President, if you want to protect those "children of God," maybe stop calling them terrorists and consider offering to take them in. Otherwise, your words are hollow.
Thought #3: This was clearly unconstitutional.
Regardless of whether you think we had any business getting involved in Syria, what's beyond debate is that Trump's unilateral action to launch those missiles was well outside his constitutional authority. And before the calls of partisanship start, let me clarify: this was illegal when Obama ordered all those drone strikes, it was illegal when Clinton launched cruise missiles in the late 90s, and it will be illegal the next time a Democratic president does it. Unless the United States is attacked and immediate defensive action is needed, the president does not make the decision on where our military gets involved. That's the job of Congress. Just because this type of behavior has become the norm doesn't need it is right and should go without reproach.
Thought #4: Something had to be done...didn't it?
This is where I really start to get conflicted. The term I've adopted for my views on military intervention is "cynical pacifism." I believe wholeheartedly that violence begets violence and that we should take all possible steps to avoid the use of military force. I would never allow myself to be put into the position of being ordered to kill, and I would proudly claim "conscientious objector" status if things ever got so bad that conscription became a reality again. But I also recognize that, in an imperfect world with imperfect humans, war is going to happen. It's a part of the human condition, and while we continue to struggle against that, we also can't ignore the fact that there will always be assholes trying to use force to impose their will on the weak.
So when I see that Bashar Al-Assad is gassing his own people and committing war crime after war crime, I won't lie to you and say that the primal part of me doesn't think we should go kick his ass. And even though my more rational side wins out and I recognize the damage that a full-scale military incursion would almost certainly do more harm than good, I find myself wrestling with a question: can we really let this happen? Can we stand by and watch these atrocities happen? Does our involvement do more harm than good in the long term, and how much does that matter if we can save lives in the short term? I honestly don't have an answer, and I don't think anyone does.
Thought #5: How can we help?
I don't doubt that Trump was impacted by the horrible images coming out of Syria. I think we all were. The tragedy of the Syrian people, may of whom have known nothing but war and oppression for their entire lives, in real and it is heartbreaking. And the sad likelihood is that it will get worse before it gets better. It's enough to leave one feeling depressed and hopeless.
But there are tangible, real things we can do to help.
If you have the ability, consider donating to groups like Doctors Without Borders, Islamic Relief USA, or any of the other charities doing important work to help those impacted by the crisis.
Lobby your elected representatives on refugees and foreign aid. The Trump administration has tried to ban refugees and proposed a budget that makes massive cuts to foreign aid programs. We need to let our voices be heard so our representatives know we stand with the people of Syria and demand that our country takes steps, and not just militarily, to help them.
Help refugees here in the United States. Groups like Rescue.org provide great resources on ways to help refugees get settled into their new homes and welcomed into our communities. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about how terrifying it must be to come to a new place with no friends, family, or familiarity, a place where a substantial portion of the populace thinks you mean them harm. We can be their support system.
I don't have all the answers, as I'm sure this post has made abundantly clear. I'm just a guy. But I know one thing: every thing we can do to help these people as they go through a hell we will never have to experience is a win. Maybe not a big win, the kind that shakes governments and goes down in the history books. But a win. And that's a start.