Don-Pixel / Flickr no war...
Don-Pixel / Flickr

Any time the government of the United States is considering entering a new war, some very simple questions need to be answered. But that requires that the questions first be asked. By politicians. By pundits. By activists. By all Americans. Those questions include:

  • What is the goal?
  • What is the endgame?
  • What needs to be accomplished for the United States to be able to leave?
  • How long will that take?
  • How many lives will be lost?
  • How many will be wounded?
  • How many civilians will become refugees?
  • Who will care for them, and how?
  • How much money will it all cost?
  • How will those costs be covered?

Had answers to such questions been required, the United States might never have entered the Vietnam War. Had answers to such questions been required, the United States might have chosen a special ops police action against the perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks, rather than a war that continues, still without those questions being asked and answered, now in its second decade and third administration. Had answers to such questions been required, the United States certainly never would have instigated the Iraq War.

Trump needs media distractions, although amidst so many failures and scandals it’s hard to discern what constitutes a distraction and from what it is supposed to be distracting. But like all chickenhawks, Cadet Bonespurs neither knows nor cares that war is, first and foremost, about human suffering. Trump tweets about launching a war just as a child taunts an opponent in a video game. Such power makes a small person feel big. It’s a political tool and the lowest possible means of self-validation. Which means anything is possible.

Trump’s new chickenhawk national security advisor has advocated bombing Iran and North Korea; made false accusations against Cuba, and then in a fit of rage sought retribution against the actual experts who contradicted him; and will seek a provocative hard line against Venezuela and Nicaragua, as well. With so many possible wars to launch, perhaps he will have trouble deciding what to bomb first. Or maybe he will want to bomb them all, just for fun. And then there’s Syria.

None of the above listed questions has been asked about Syria, and Trump is too bumbling to understand that once the United States is in a conflict, extricating itself is just a tad more complicated than tweeting. That’s a key part of the problem about getting into a war in the first place. So, when his latest sudden whim was to push for an immediate withdrawal from the limited military presence in Syria, the reaction by Syrian despot Hafez al-Assad was not unpredictable. Even Republican Senator John McCain accused Trump of instigating the chemical attack on Douma, as Assad sought to take advantage of his newfound freedom to escalate.

And then after the chemical attack, Trump jumped on Twitter to taunt Syria and its ally Russia, trying to bluster past his own ineptitude and hypocrisy, while also helpfully eliminating any military advantage that might have come from the element of surprise. If that sounds confusing, it’s only because it is. It is muddled. Like Trump’s mind: Limited military presence bad; unfettered violence from blithe decision to end limited military presence also bad; escalated military presence and escalated violence in response good. Now imagine those monosyllabic value judgments spoken by Boris Karloff as the monster in Bride Of Frankenstein.

Only Trump could take a host of bad policy options and make them even worse. But then Trump already has been raging hypocritically, blaming former President Obama for not having attacked Syria, despite having in real time demanded that Obama not attack Syria. Just he once criticized Obama for supposedly telegraphing military strikes, which he now hypocritically is doing. One of the defining rules of Trump’s rabid bombast is that if he accuses someone of something, he is or will be guilty of doing it himself. But this is about much more than Trump. This is about war itself.

Hafez al-Assad is a butcher. This has been known for years. Beyond the carnage and humanitarian disaster of the ongoing Syrian civil war itself, he has been accused of executing over ten thousand prisoners. The ghastly chemical attack in Douma only further confirmed what we already knew about Assad. It is tempting to call him a monster, but that only obfuscates the true horror: Assad is human. What he is doing proves once again what humans are capable of doing. And of course the only humane response is to want to stop him, and to hold him accountable, but it is not that simple.

Even if the Russian regime wasn’t running interference for Assad, and a full-scale attempt at regime change in Syria didn’t risk igniting a much more dangerous, potentially global conflict, there are no good military solutions to Assad. If he and his regime are taken down, who fills the vacuum? Assad is one of the primary reasons the terrorists who call themselves the Islamic State are on the run. Their remnants would love to see Assad fall. They arose out of the chaos when another murderous despot was toppled by an American Republican president, and those remnants would find respite in the chaos after Assad fell. And they aren’t the only faction that would see in the chaos political opportunity.

There are many opposition groups in Syria, and with Assad out of the way, they would only fight harder for the control they would then see within their reach. The civil war would mutate, it would not end. ISIS and other extremist groups would proliferate. And who would gain control of Assad’s arsenals and his stockpiles of chemical weapons? Meanwhile, the Kurds would see an opportunity finally to have the home state they deserve, but the Kurds are not monolithic, and conflicts between their factions also would escalate. And Turkey, Iraq, and Iran wouldn’t want any of those factions to succeed, because such success would inspire their own repressed Kurdish populations. Iran and its allies also would see opportunities to gain more of a foothold in Syria and Lebanon. And Russia would want to control all of it.

In the face of Assad’s horrors, President Obama did want to take action against Assad, but with the quaint notion of abiding by the Constitution he first sought congressional authorization, which was denied. Trump wasn’t the only Republican who opposed the idea, but now that he favors it—and criticizes Obama for doing what he at the time publicly urged Obama to do—Republicans will obediently fall in line. Trump is unlikely to seek congressional approval, and Republicans won’t care. Trump could bomb Fifth Avenue, and Republicans wouldn’t care.

Iraq is still far from stable. Trump is expanding the endless war in Afghanistan. And now he seems likely to escalate into another war. Lessons aren’t learned. What starts with bombing isn’t likely to succeed by bombing, and isn’t likely to end with bombing. It’s easy and obvious to want to stop Assad, but it’s not so easy to explain how that is accomplished, or what comes next. Wars are not neat and tidy. And once again those questions aren’t being asked. By politicians. By pundits. By activists. By all Americans.

  • What is the goal?
  • What is the endgame?
  • What needs to be accomplished for the United States to be able to leave?
  • How long will that take?
  • How many lives will be lost?
  • How many will be wounded?
  • How many civilians will become refugees?
  • Who will care for them, and how?
  • How much money will it all cost?
  • How will those costs be covered?

Wars are easy to start. They’re not so easy to end.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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