Ever since Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s latest chemical weapons atrocity last weekend, many of President Trump’s strongest supporters have gone out of their way to caution against a military response from the United States.
These supporters rightly pointed out that military intervention in the Middle East has been a disaster for the U.S., costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars – and for what? A situation on the ground that never seems to improve, and a series of conflicts that no amount of American blood or treasure looks likely to bring to an end.
What difference can we possibly make, even with the best of intentions, to religious and ethnic strife with origins that are centuries old? Often – as with the rise of ISIS – our actions seem to make things even worse.
You know the arguments: America shouldn’t get involved in foreign wars. We’ve had enough of getting bogged down in quagmires overseas. No more nation-building abroad. Let’s focus on building our nation here at home.
Let’s be clear: those arguments are absolutely right. Only a deeply ideological mindset, divorced from reality and experience, could see it any other way.
Standing firmly behind such a skeptical attitude to U.S. military interventionism was a big part of Donald Trump’s political success in 2016. It marked him out from the establishment Republicans he faced in the presidential primaries, and from the establishment Democrat he faced in November.
Hillary Clinton’s hawkish reputation – she was frequently described by the left in her own party as a “warmonger” – undoubtedly cost her support.
But as ever in politics, a good argument can fall apart if you push it to extremes. A bias against a swaggering kind of global interventionism does not mean you should never take any action, on any issue, anywhere.
Populists who support President Trump should remember one of the hallmarks of populism: it’s pragmatic. It’s not ideological.
That’s why populists who set their face against any military response to Assad’s evil are making a mistake. They exhibit exactly the same kind of ideological dogmatism that populism rejects, and we’ve seen this abundantly on display.
Even as the U.S., British and French strikes were underway before dawn Saturday morning (Syria time), self-styled “nationalists” were searching for reasons to object. They came across as ideologues.
There is, in fact, a strong, positive populist case for the missile strikes against Syria, and it’s a simple and practical one: if you appease one dictator, you encourage all dictators.
The missile strikes against Syria are not just about Syria.
When President Obama appeased the Syrian government with his failure to back up his “red line” rhetoric in 2012 – a warning to Assad not to use chemical weapons – that didn’t just encourage Assad to use chemical weapons again.
President’s Obama’s empty threat gave the green light to Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, knowing that the U.S. would never act. It emboldened North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to push harder for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, believing America was weak.
And most significantly for the populist movement, President Obama’s failure to act against Syria strengthened the resolve of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping.
Xi saw that America would not confront a bully, so he stepped up his own bullying – seizing territory in the South China Sea, increasing oppression and Communist Party control at home, and developing his plans for military and economic world domination through his ‘One Belt One Road” and “Made in China 2025” programs.
If President Trump had failed to respond militarily to this latest Syrian chemical attack, dictators and bullies the world over would have gotten a simple message: do whatever you want, because America’s not going to stop you.
That wouldn't just mean the likelihood of more chemical attacks, which could put Americans in danger around the world. It would mean that our hand would be weakened when confronting China over trade as well. A strong America is not only good for security, it’s good economics – good for American workers.
Furthermore, contrary to the nationalist and isolationist dogma, you can show strength and stand up to bullies without getting entangled in costly, lengthy and counterproductive invasions of other countries.
You can show strength like President Reagan did, with airstrikes on Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. You don’t need to follow the disastrous model of President George W. Bush that drew U.S. troops into Afghanistan and Iraq, where they remain today.
That kind of practical, balanced approach – show strength but don’t get bogged down overseas – seems to be exactly the strategy on display from President Trump and his team over Syria. Every positive populist should support it.