Trump, Syria, and Buyer’s Remorse

Many a man, particularly Christian ones, are suffering from buyer’s remorse today after news broke last night that President Donald Trump authorized missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime. There were concerns leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election that Hillary Clinton, had she won, would needlessly involve the United States in a military conflict by enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria. That move would have likely upset Russia, which has actively supported Assad’s campaign against rebel fighters (including the Islamic State) in the country. Trump, many believed, would be less hawkish than many mainline Republicans and find a way to build stronger ties with Russia as part of a united front against terrorism. Granted, last night’s “demonstration” was rather modest, and no one yet knows if Trump will authorize any further military action. However, as things currently stand, it appears that Trump’s foreign policy won’t cut along strictly anti-interventionist lines.

The situation in Syria is unique insofar as Assad’s regime remains one of the truly last secular governments in a Muslim-majority country in the Middle East. Moreover, Syria has failed to “play by the rules” of globalism over the years by maintaining a state-owned central bank; refusing to submit itself to the International Monetary Fund by taking out condition-heavy loans; and maintaining deep oil and gas reserves. Assad in particular balked at the idea of an “Arab Spring,” no doubt realizing that any attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East results in religious conflict, ethnic cleansing, and mass destabilization. Of course, none of this is to say that Assad is a “good man” by contemporary lights; the tactics of his military operation have been quite brutal, and it’s certainly not beyond the pale to suspect his regime of committing war crimes. However, the recent charge of using chemical weapons does ring strange considering that Assad had little-to-no reason to deploy them in the midst of a campaign his army was finally winning and that using such weapons opened the door wide for “justified” Western retaliation.

Or is this all a show? Some opine that Trump, Assad, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are all “in on it” with regard to last night’s attack. If the stories are true, the missile strike did almost no damage to Syria’s military and only served to bolster Trump’s national standing by appearing to “look tough” on an “evil regime.” Putin, for his part, gets to posture with moral outrage at the “illegal” American attack, thus currying favor with his own constituents while avoiding any direct confrontation with the United States. This theory will take on greater plausibility in the coming days and weeks if Trump avoids getting America further involved in the intra-Syrian conflict.

Regardless, Trump has shown himself as a leader not to be trusted—something both liberals and conservatives warned about over the past year. The worry is that, as in business, Trump will prove himself to be an opportunist in politics, making decisions not in line with campaign promises or a coherent policy framework, but rather in accordance with naked self-interest. This would not make Trump unique in recent political history, mind you. Remember that in the midst of a very public sex scandal and subsequent criminal investigation, Bill Clinton authorized air strikes against Iraq in order to improve his image, distract from the affair, or both. Trump, who has been on the ropes since taking office due to constant pushbacks from the judiciary, media, and within his own party, is staring down the barrel of ongoing accusations of colluding with the Russians in the run-up to his election. What better way to get some of the heat off his back than appearing to clash with Russian interests?

The primary cause for concern in Syria should remain the status of its ever-dwindling Christian population. Catholics and Orthodox alike have suffered terribly during the country’s civil war, and they will continue to suffer if the forces of militant Islam are not put down once and for all. Assad’s regime is their katechon, a restrainer holding back the lawlessness that would leave a river of Christian blood running through the country. To the extent that Trump and his allies take action that places Syria’s Christians further in harm’s way, they must be rejected, and rejected forcefully by American Catholics. Moral indecency does not get a free pass simply because it is carried out by one’s preferred candidate. While it is heartening to see some Christian supporters of Trump come around to this reality, it may take more than one betrayal for many others to realize that Trump’s ascendency is and will always be a “lesser of two evils,” but an evil nonetheless.