War! (What is it Good For?)

Last Friday, President Trump unleashed 59 Tomahawks on a Bashar al-Assad military air base. But has he unleashed the dogs of war, too?

The president justified the attack on Assad gassing innocents. Yet the president’s action served more than one purpose. It had strategic intent. It was a reassertion of America power after an eight-year drought under the feeble Barack Obama. U.S. missiles flying made impacts, of a sort, not just in Syria but across the globe. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and China’s Xi Jinping took notice. Jinping did so over crème brulee at Mar-a-Lago on Friday evening.

Putting America’s enemies -- or potential enemies -- on notice that U.S. military might can be exercised as required has advantages in statecraft. But the president’s course following the attack must be abundantly cautious and well planned.  

Vladimir Putin took note. The attack angered him, Russia being heavily invested in the Assad regime. Iran’s mullahs -- Putin’s allies -- who have designs on the Middle East, noticed, too. Their stake in Syria is part of an ages-old sectarian dispute between Shi'is and Sunnis for dominance in Islam.    

In the aftermath of U.S. action, Putin said, in effect, “Never again would a U.S. attack in Syria go without a Russian response.” The Iranians joined him in his declaration. If Putin isn’t bluffing, another American attack on Assad could invite wider war. Are the American people prepared for the consequences?  

Putin’s Russia, a regional power with ambitions -- or is it pretensions? -- desires to regain global power status. It’s heavily invested in Syria as a beachhead for greater influence in the Middle East. Putin wants to control the Eastern Mediterranean. Putin wants access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and warm water ports for his navy. He desires some control in oil production. He seeks to outflank globalist Western Europe, which frets about Russian advances west. Crimea remains a flashpoint. Tensions over the Baltic States are increasing.

A critical question Americans need to ask is, does Syria have strategic importance to the U.S.? Certainly, the U.S. doesn’t want Syria and Libya to be safe havens for ISIS or whatever the American-hating Islamic terrorist outfit is de la journée.

Remember, though, thanks to “regime change” policy, President Obama destabilized Syria and Libya. Obama unsuccessfully backed regime change in Egypt. The Middle East was upended in no small part through the misbegotten belief that overthrowing bad players, cozying up to fundamentalists, and democratization would be good for U.S. security. George W. Bush laid the groundwork for this policy with the Iraq War. However well intended, the results have been disastrous. The region has roiled. Vacuums have permitted the rise of ISIS.      

Can the U.S. achieve its aims of defeating ISIS without direct confrontations with Russia in Syria? Can it succeed through cooperation with regional allies, that’s Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, and Israel? Can it do so by proxy, providing support to the Kurds and friendlies in Syria? Can the goal of defeating ISIS be achieved, in part, via covert and Special Forces operations? Do U.S. leaders have the discipline and patience to win indirectly and over a longer haul? 

Assad is bad hombre, no doubt. Moral revulsion and condemnation of this man is as it should be. But men like Assad have walked the planet since humans went upright. What threat does Assad pose to the U.S. or its vital interests? Is the U.S. ready to clash with Russia to remove him from power, as is now being weighed by the administration? Is moral outrage sufficient grounds for war?

War parties in the U.S. think so. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are foremost, publicly eager to risk war with Russia for regime change in Syria. Graham, on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, said he wants to escalate American involvement in Syria, adding thousands of U.S. ground troops to the 1,000 there already. Increases in troops up the chances of fights with the Russians.

Attacks by Russian warplanes on Syrian friendlies should invite the U.S. to shoot down its fighters, said Graham. In other words, Graham is inviting a major war with Russia. What alternative would Putin have if the U.S. began downing his fighters?   

Western European leaders have focused mostly on punishing Assad, though they know doing so strikes at Putin, whom they’ve made a pariah.

This from British Prime Minister Theresa May, via a statement issued by her office:

“The U.K. government fully supports the U.S. action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks.”

May’s comment leads to the question, “If the Tomahawk assault doesn’t deter Assad from chemical weapons attacks on innocents, what will be the American and Western European response?” Or if Assad continues to butcher innocents conventionally, and those killings are captured on camera, what then?

Putin has laid down a marker -- his own redline. If the U.S. crosses it and Putin counters, a major war with Russia looms. Wars being wars, meaning they’re fraught with many variables, a U.S.-led conflict with Russia likely wouldn’t be limited to the Syrian theatre. It may expand to Europe. Given the U.S.’s outsized NATO commitment, war there means the U.S. is on the frontlines bearing the burden and brunt. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of casualties aren’t out of the question, military and civilian.    

Though Russia is just a regional power it’s still a nuclear one. No danger exists of a conventional war ratcheting up to a nuclear exchange? Two armed-to-the-teeth nuclear powers have never squared off. Are the president and Washington politicians willing to gamble that a war with Russia can be contained?

Two vast oceans no longer protect the homeland from attack by its enemies. Technology has revolutionized weaponry and delivery systems. Advanced nations have the ability to project the fight at greater distances. The Russians aren’t incapable in this regard. Is the U.S. prepared for Russia to take the fight to strategic and even civilian targets here? 

War is now multidimensional and total. Unconventional or “asymmetric” warfare is a given. Cyber warfare could seriously disrupt American infrastructure -- that’s its power grids, water supplies, finance, and supply chains, among other critical areas. Enemy infiltration of the homeland and sabotage aren’t off-limits.

Sounds scary and doomsdayish, doesn’t it? Well, it is, because modern major war holds out the prospect of death and destruction rapidly on a broad scale. There should never be a rush to war. Sober and sensible minds need to give much pause.

The U.S. has every right to protect itself and its vital interests from its enemies. If wars come in defense of either or both, then wars come. But the nation’s leaders need to be held to strict account. Casual definitions of what constitute critical U.S. interests aren’t permissible. Moral outrage at Assad, justified as it is, doesn’t provide sufficient reason for war with Russia.

There’s no legitimate U.S. grievance with Russia that compels war. Alleged attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections aren’t justification. Russia poses no threat to the homeland. America’s vital interests can be safeguarded and advanced without recourse to armed conflict with Putin.

But if you ask McCain and Graham what good is war with Russia, don’t expect them to say, “Absolutely nothing.”

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