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The risky consequences of policing the world

A Syrian soldier sprays water on the wreckage

A Syrian soldier sprays water on the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre compound bombed by Western forces on April 14. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Louai Beshara

The airstrikes in Syria by U.S., French and British forces have created upheaval in the ranks of American punditry.

Supporters of President Donald Trump on the right such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham condemned the airstrikes, joining forces with anti-war leftists and libertarians. Meanwhile, many Trump opponents welcomed the action — despite acknowledging that its timing raises questions of a wag-the-dog attempt to distract from Trump scandals.

The Obama administration, usually held up as a model of U.S. leadership compared with its successor, has come under harsh criticism for its inadequate response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.

We face, once again, questions of U.S. and Western global leadership in the modern age — and of its limits and paradoxes.

The decision to strike Syria was triggered by reports that the forces of Bashar Assad carried out chemical attacks on the town of Douma, killing at least 40 people (many of them children) and injuring hundreds. Opponents of U.S. military action have questioned whether Assad’s regime was responsible for the attacks, even suggesting it was a hoax to justify intervention. (Pro-Assad Russian media have worked hard to flog those theories.) Yet experts believe that, given what we know about the situation and about past attacks, there is no doubt the regime is responsible.

Does the use of chemical weapons — President Barack Obama’s line in the sand six years ago — warrant Western military action? If the reasons are humanitarian and moral, it can easily be argued that conventional attacks on civilians can be just as destructive, inhumane and repugnant. But there are also excellent reasons, including the safety of American troops and other personnel abroad, to say that deterrence of chemical warfare is a legitimate foreign policy goal for the United States.

Western and especially American policies in the Middle East today are haunted by the specter of Iraq. (Trump’s use of the phrase “mission accomplished” in his tweet celebrating the success of the attacks perversely underscored the linkage.) More than 15 years ago, Western powers went to war to bring down an evil and brutal dictatorship believed to hold an arsenal of weapons that made it a threat to the world. The threat was never substantiated, and the consensus today is that the war made the region’s problems worse — leading, among other things, to the rise of vast jihadist armies.

The conflict in Syria, where Assad’s opponents include many jihadists, raises similar issues. Would the fall of the Kremlin-backed regime make things worse, not only for the local population but also for the world? Or will the survival of Assad’s dictatorship, which is unlikely to re-establish full control over the country and will continue to wage war on the population, contribute to ongoing instability, including mass emigration?

The depressing reality is that there are no good options — and we cannot be sure which of the bad options are less terrible.

Behind this dilemma is one of the paradoxes of modern liberal democracy. The liberal democratic powers have enough military strength and wealth to intervene in other less-developed parts of the world. They also espouse political and moral values that often dictate intervention, both for humanitarian reasons and in the interests of the Western-led liberal global order. Yet interventions are likely to have unforeseen consequences that include the weakening of liberal democracies themselves.

The Iraq fiasco in part gave us the Trump presidency. Now, an unqualified populist leader is facing the same dilemma of intervention.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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