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A good rule of thumb for conservatives is that If Nancy Pelosi favors something, oppose it.  Pelosi liked the administration’s April 7 cruise missile strike on Syria.

Time to roll out another truism: there is an exception to every rule. 

A fair number of conservatives don’t see it that way.  A strange conglomeration of hardcore Trump supporters and die-hard Trump-haters objected to the attack variously on populist, constitutional, and Realpolitik grounds.  To make the situation even odder, they effectively joined the leftist lunatic fringe (where Pelosi can often be found), which opposes almost any American military action based on strained interpretations of both existing and imaginary international law. 

All of these various groups are likely wrong about the attack, an assertion that seems increasingly true as time passes.  But let’s quickly review their briefs.

On the hardcore Trump side, some commentators see the attacks as inconsistent with Trump’s electioneering (which is true) and his general America First bent.  Trump felt compelled to explain away the charge by asking Americans to recognize and accept the difference between campaigning for president and governing.  If he did not do this at some point in his administration, he’d be truly unique.  Trump’s turned rather quickly on this issue and others, but he took a lot of positions during the campaign that were bound to be brutalized by reality.  Duly assaulted, Trump is punching back in an increasingly sensible manner that might irk some true believers but was probably inevitable. 

Then there are the constitutionalists, many of whom do not much like Trump but nonetheless hoped he might rein in the exercise of executive power.  That was always a pipe dream.  Again, Trump really would have been unique had he done that, and it’s always been pretty obvious that temperamentally, he is ill suited to give up power.  In any case, the constitutionalists are wrong about Trump’s use of force, as Professor John Yoo explained to some of his rather apoplectic colleagues over at National Review, generally a bastion (if significantly weakened) of anti-Trumpism. 

There are the foreign policy pragmatists, like Daniel Pipes, who has no love for Assad or Putin or ISIS or Hezbollah or pretty much any faction in the Syrian imbroglio and quite reasonably prefers that they bash each other’s brains in while we watch from a distance.  I don’t have a problem with this approach but by the same token don’t see how the missile strike undermined it. 

Finally there are the moralists.  They acknowledge that the Syrian chemical attack was horrid, but then point out that Assad has killed multitudes more by conventional bombs and bullets.  People are killed and maimed either way they say, so if you don’t try to stop it all, the attack is merely an act of vainglory. 

So far, it appears that the attack should be seen exactly for what it appears to have been – an appropriate retaliatory operation against a criminal regime that blatantly violated codified and accepted international law.  This simple analysis answers all the critics’ questions.

The attack was constitutional because it was not an act of war, but rather akin to a retaliatory and deterrent strike against pirates.  Just as no one would actually expect a president to request a declaration of war so a naval vessel could bombard a nest of pirates, the same applies when a couple of American naval vessels bombard a Syrian airbase for their blatant and illegal use of a prohibited weapon. 

The strike was legal under international law for the same reason.  There is no international policeman to enforce the laws of war, and it is impractical if not usually impossible to have international bodies authorize such action.  If no nation enforces the law, why even bother to have it?  Just as any nation can act legally against pirates internationally, so too can nations act against users of banned chemical weapons. 

On a related note, the only thing that bothered me about the cruise missile attack was that both Pelosi and the Pentagon asserted that the action was okay because it was “proportional.”  This is pure nonsense, and the Pentagon should stay away from bragging about proportional strikes, because next time, Ms. Pelosi and her comrades probably won’t see it that way.  The Russians and Syrians were warned beforehand about the attack and so suffered few casualties.  That makes the proportionality crowd happy, but had, say, 100 Syrians died – equal to the death toll of the chemical attack – they’d be screaming that the attack was not proportional. 

This brings us the practical military-political argument.  The Syrian strike was not proportional; it was economical – that is, it followed the military dictum of economy of force and used appropriate weapons for the target.  In that, it differed from Bill Clinton’s use of cruise missiles against al-Qaeda tents in Afghanistan, and Vladimir Putin’s gratuitous cruise missile attack on ISIS last year.   That makes people who understand military power and its appropriate use take notice.  The days of feckless rhetoric and bogus red lines are over.  But it does not necessarily mean that the U.S. is now committed to overthrowing Bashar Assad or is now going to wade directly into the Syrian civil war, as some fear. 

As to the morality of a reprisal for a ruthless chemical attack whereas we ignore brutal non-chemical attacks, here we must invoke the practical distinctions between ethics and law and how those concepts operate in the real world.  The Westphalian principle that has governed international relations since the 17th century says that nations should not interfere in the internal conflicts of other nations, particularly as they relate to ideology and religion.  The Thirty Years War taught that such intervention is generally worse than the cure.  And were we to intervene against every tin-pot dictator who kills his own people, we’d be at war all over the globe constantly.  The bottom line is that Assad’s war on his own people may be wrong, but it is not strictly illegal.  When he uses chemical weapons to do it, the action is both wrong and illegal, and so it is legally and morally worth intervening.  That is not a perfect moral position, but neither do we live in perfect moral universe.

Trump is muddling through this imperfect universe and, so far, at least, is doing a lot better than his predecessor, as the Syrian operation demonstrates.

A good rule of thumb for conservatives is that If Nancy Pelosi favors something, oppose it.  Pelosi liked the administration’s April 7 cruise missile strike on Syria.

Time to roll out another truism: there is an exception to every rule. 

A fair number of conservatives don’t see it that way.  A strange conglomeration of hardcore Trump supporters and die-hard Trump-haters objected to the attack variously on populist, constitutional, and Realpolitik grounds.  To make the situation even odder, they effectively joined the leftist lunatic fringe (where Pelosi can often be found), which opposes almost any American military action based on strained interpretations of both existing and imaginary international law. 

All of these various groups are likely wrong about the attack, an assertion that seems increasingly true as time passes.  But let’s quickly review their briefs.

On the hardcore Trump side, some commentators see the attacks as inconsistent with Trump’s electioneering (which is true) and his general America First bent.  Trump felt compelled to explain away the charge by asking Americans to recognize and accept the difference between campaigning for president and governing.  If he did not do this at some point in his administration, he’d be truly unique.  Trump’s turned rather quickly on this issue and others, but he took a lot of positions during the campaign that were bound to be brutalized by reality.  Duly assaulted, Trump is punching back in an increasingly sensible manner that might irk some true believers but was probably inevitable. 

Then there are the constitutionalists, many of whom do not much like Trump but nonetheless hoped he might rein in the exercise of executive power.  That was always a pipe dream.  Again, Trump really would have been unique had he done that, and it’s always been pretty obvious that temperamentally, he is ill suited to give up power.  In any case, the constitutionalists are wrong about Trump’s use of force, as Professor John Yoo explained to some of his rather apoplectic colleagues over at National Review, generally a bastion (if significantly weakened) of anti-Trumpism. 

There are the foreign policy pragmatists, like Daniel Pipes, who has no love for Assad or Putin or ISIS or Hezbollah or pretty much any faction in the Syrian imbroglio and quite reasonably prefers that they bash each other’s brains in while we watch from a distance.  I don’t have a problem with this approach but by the same token don’t see how the missile strike undermined it. 

Finally there are the moralists.  They acknowledge that the Syrian chemical attack was horrid, but then point out that Assad has killed multitudes more by conventional bombs and bullets.  People are killed and maimed either way they say, so if you don’t try to stop it all, the attack is merely an act of vainglory. 

So far, it appears that the attack should be seen exactly for what it appears to have been – an appropriate retaliatory operation against a criminal regime that blatantly violated codified and accepted international law.  This simple analysis answers all the critics’ questions.

The attack was constitutional because it was not an act of war, but rather akin to a retaliatory and deterrent strike against pirates.  Just as no one would actually expect a president to request a declaration of war so a naval vessel could bombard a nest of pirates, the same applies when a couple of American naval vessels bombard a Syrian airbase for their blatant and illegal use of a prohibited weapon. 

The strike was legal under international law for the same reason.  There is no international policeman to enforce the laws of war, and it is impractical if not usually impossible to have international bodies authorize such action.  If no nation enforces the law, why even bother to have it?  Just as any nation can act legally against pirates internationally, so too can nations act against users of banned chemical weapons. 

On a related note, the only thing that bothered me about the cruise missile attack was that both Pelosi and the Pentagon asserted that the action was okay because it was “proportional.”  This is pure nonsense, and the Pentagon should stay away from bragging about proportional strikes, because next time, Ms. Pelosi and her comrades probably won’t see it that way.  The Russians and Syrians were warned beforehand about the attack and so suffered few casualties.  That makes the proportionality crowd happy, but had, say, 100 Syrians died – equal to the death toll of the chemical attack – they’d be screaming that the attack was not proportional. 

This brings us the practical military-political argument.  The Syrian strike was not proportional; it was economical – that is, it followed the military dictum of economy of force and used appropriate weapons for the target.  In that, it differed from Bill Clinton’s use of cruise missiles against al-Qaeda tents in Afghanistan, and Vladimir Putin’s gratuitous cruise missile attack on ISIS last year.   That makes people who understand military power and its appropriate use take notice.  The days of feckless rhetoric and bogus red lines are over.  But it does not necessarily mean that the U.S. is now committed to overthrowing Bashar Assad or is now going to wade directly into the Syrian civil war, as some fear. 

As to the morality of a reprisal for a ruthless chemical attack whereas we ignore brutal non-chemical attacks, here we must invoke the practical distinctions between ethics and law and how those concepts operate in the real world.  The Westphalian principle that has governed international relations since the 17th century says that nations should not interfere in the internal conflicts of other nations, particularly as they relate to ideology and religion.  The Thirty Years War taught that such intervention is generally worse than the cure.  And were we to intervene against every tin-pot dictator who kills his own people, we’d be at war all over the globe constantly.  The bottom line is that Assad’s war on his own people may be wrong, but it is not strictly illegal.  When he uses chemical weapons to do it, the action is both wrong and illegal, and so it is legally and morally worth intervening.  That is not a perfect moral position, but neither do we live in perfect moral universe.

Trump is muddling through this imperfect universe and, so far, at least, is doing a lot better than his predecessor, as the Syrian operation demonstrates.



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