The natural response of an American to the news that the Navy launched a missile attack on Syrian military installations yesterday must be: pray for our forces and hope they take no prisoners.
We may well feel, and certainly we have expressed the feeling in these columns, that the Syrian civil war is a feud best left to the Arabs. Let them resolve their differences in their time-honored way, by slaughtering one another with a hatred so intense as to defy all attempts at understanding by Americans, products of Western, Judeo-Christian civilization.
There are variations, to be sure, on this quite sensible feeling.
There is the internationalist, or Wilsonian, tradition in American foreign policy, which holds that our national interest requires that we bring order – with political reform when possible, with force when necessary – to the savage regions of the world.
These regions are not defined by geography alone. The invention of American internationalism came as a response to events in Europe, the very heartland of Western civilization.
There is also the Jacksonian tradition, skeptical of any missionary impulse in foreign affairs. But Americans inclined toward this way of thinking are often the first to get their guns and respond with violence to the outrages of our enemies. Charles Lindbergh, the isolationist, America First leader in the 1930s, put on his colonel’s uniform the day after Pearl Harbor and served in the Army Air Force throughout the war, despite being well over age.
Regardless of how we feel about what constitutes a prudent American policy in the Arab world, however much we disagree on how things might have been done at certain conjectures, when the president of the United States strikes a blow against our enemies, we support him, whichever party he belongs to. In the present case, President Trump argues that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria represents a threat, political, military, moral, that cannot be discussed, but only punished and stopped.
There is always time to argue. G.H.W. Bush should have finished the job he started. Bill Clinton should have gone after the Bin Laden organization when he had it in the crosshairs. G.W. Bush should not have blundered into an unwinnable crusade for democracy.
Barack Obama, having drawn a red line on using chemical weapons, should have reacted with overwhelming force when Assad crossed it.
We can argue about why policy always falls short in the Middle East, and maybe some day we can even learn something from our dense arguments. The argument today is the one carried by Tomahawk missiles.
Let us not fool ourselves: foreign policy is more often a game you do not lose than one you win. Today is not the time to discuss why the situation in the Middle East is as rotten as it is, but it is the time to support our warriors, to support our government, and to support the use of whatever force it takes to demonstrate to friend and foe that there is a new sheriff in town, one who does not blink.