War is the great clarifier. The Russian move to quash both ISIS and the US-backed jihadist movement aimed at overthrowing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has defined the lines of demarcation between the candidates for US President in both parties, and shown us what they are made of.
The issue at hand: should the US impose a “no-fly” zone in Syria, or parts of it, in order to stop the Russians from spoiling our little party?
On the one side, we have the President of the United States, who – foiled by popular opinion when he last tried to massively intervene in Syria’s civil war – has apparently learned his lesson. He opposes a no-fly zone, at least for the moment. The Russian attempt to “prop up” Assad” is “just going to get them stuck in a quagmire,” he said at a news conference, “and it won’t work, and they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.” He went on to describe “half-baked” ideas about what to do in response to the Russian move, later claiming that he wasn’t talking about Hillary Clinton’s support for a no-fly zone – although it’s hard to take him at his word on that. Clinton "is not half-baked in terms of her approach to these problems,” he said, but "there’s a difference between running for president and being president. And the decisions that are being made and the discussions that I’m having with the Joint Chiefs become much more specific and require, I think, a different kind of judgment. If and when she’s president, then she’ll make those judgments.”
Speaking of the Joint Chiefs, as a presidential candidate Mrs. Clinton doesn’t have to deal with the Pentagon, which is reportedly against imposing a no-fly zone – since they will be charged with enforcing it while somehow avoiding a clash with the Russians over Syrian airspace. In short, if the War Party has its way, the US military will once again be charged with an impossible task, and the Pentagon is none too eager to be blamed for the inevitable resulting disaster.
Freed of the Pentagon’s restraining hand, Clinton, for her part, told a Boston television station:
“I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees.”
This puts her in synch with the most irresponsible of the Republican candidates, such as Marco Rubio, who wants “a safe zone that includes a no-fly zone.” Asked what would happen when US planes meet Russian fighter jets in the skies over Syria, Rubio said the Russians were sure to back down, but even if they didn’t the Russians “are no different than any other adversary” – a statement that is a) inaccurate, and b) proof positive of his utter recklessness.
What Rubio, Clinton, and the rest of the GOP field– minus Donald Trump, and possibly Rand Paul – are saying is that it’s worth risking war with nuclear-armed Russia over who gets to determine the outcome of Syria’s civil war.
Bernie Sanders issued a statement that tried to bridge the gap between the peacenik left and the cruise-missile left:
“I support President Obama’s effort to combat the Islamic State in Syria while at the same time supporting those in Syria trying to overthrow the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Assad. I oppose, at this point, a unilateral American no-fly zone in Syria, which could get us more deeply involved in that horrible civil war and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region.”
At what point would Sanders support a no-fly zone – and what about one imposed by a multilateral coalition of Western nations? He doesn’t say, but he’s clearly not taking the standard leftist noninterventionist line in this debate for the simple reason that what passes for the “left” today is split on the issue of what to do about Syria, if anything.
On the one hand we have traditional non-interventionists, who want the US to simply stay out, and on the other side of the barricades we have the cruise-missile leftists, who claim that the Syrian “revolution” must be supported, and are basically taking the same position as the US State Department in saying that there is such a thing as a “moderate” and even a secular socialist (!) opposition to Assad which we have a moral obligation to aid.
These people have made the battle for Kobane into their Guernica, valorizing the left-wing factions among the Kurds and openly calling for Western intervention on their behalf: they’ve even set up a “Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria,” a parody of the leftist “solidarity” organizations of the 1980s that supported the Marxist guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua. That Hillary Clinton has taken up their cause, alongside Marco Rubio and the Weekly Standard, bothers them not at all. Indeed, the cruise-missile left bleeds off into the more liberal precincts of the Democratic party and the mass media, where “humanitarian interventionism” has replaced the old McGovernite “isolationism” of the previous generation.
Against this chorus of voices calling for the US to step into the Syrian breach, Donald Trump dissents, telling appalled interviewers he supports the Russians “bombing the hell out of ISIS.” Oh, but they’re going after “our” rebels, his CNN interlocutor averred, to which Trump answered “that he tends to believe Russia’s goal is to go after ISIS and that the US shouldn’t strive to be the ‘policeman of the world’”:
"I hear they are hitting both. If Russia wants to go in and if Russia wants to fight – in particular ISIS, and they do and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t want ISIS coming into their country and that’s going to be the next step. So that’s why they’re there. I think they will be fighting ISIS."
And while Assad is “a bad guy,” Trump said, the US-backed rebels who want to overthrow him are an unknown quantity:
"We always give weapons, we give billions of dollars in weapons and then they turn them against us. We have no control. So we don’t know the other people that we’re supposed to be backing. We don’t even know who we are backing."
What?! We shouldn’t be the policeman of the world? This was too much for John McCain, who raged that Trump “doesn’t understand” Syria:
“I don’t think he understands very well the situation. And he’s entitled to his opinion, Do we want to keep slaughtering people in Syria that are fighting for freedom? Do we want to continue the barrel bombing, which is one of the reasons why 240,000 Syrians have been murdered? Do we want this flood of refugees to continue?"
Oh, those numbers! We’re supposed to be appalled at Assad’s barbarity – but what McCain and his friends on the cruise-missile left and the Clinton campaign aren’t telling us is that the largest group among reported deaths are Syrian soldiers and supporters of Assad. However, these details aren’t of much use to McCain & Co., and his fellow “humanitarian” regime-changers, who want to do to Syria what they did to Libya, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
Yes, war is the great clarifier: it separates the demagogues from the democrats, the Caesars from the statesmen, the opportunists from the independent thinkers. And on this issue – the vital issue of war and peace – Donald Trump is the independent thinking statesman, while the rest of the presidential hopefuls, both Republicans and Democrats, are echoing the current version of the conventional wisdom in Washington. I would add that Trump is on the side of the American people, who – the last time the War Party tried to pull a fast one in Syria – rose up against Obama’s proposed bombing campaign. It was quite instructive to watch as congressional switchboards lit up with people demanding their representatives vote “Nay!” and to see these would-be “saviors” of Syria – who were quite prepared to go along with Obama — back down, one by one.
With refugees pouring into Europe, and the news that the United States is preparing to take in tens of thousands, the same people who tried to drag us into the Syrian quagmire are trying once again. This effort unites the right and the ostensible left: the entire political class is speaking as one – and we’re seeing the key to understanding Trump’s astonishing popularity in his emphatic dissent from the interventionist consensus.
That popularity is due not just to his manner, his brashness, and his “celebrity” status – all of which the chattering classes have attributed to his rise – but to the fact that he talks and thinks like an ordinary American. To wit, his comments on the Syrian imbroglio on ABC’s “This Week”:
“I think what I want to do is I want to sit back — and this does not sound like me very much — but I want to sit back, and I want to see what happens. You know, Russia got bogged down, when it was the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan. Now they’re going into Syria. There are so many traps. There are so many problems. When I heard they were going in to fight ISIS, I said, ‘Great.’”
This is precisely what most normal Americans were thinking and saying on hearing the news that Putin is cleaning up the Syrian mess – a mess we created — because what that means is that we don’t have to do it. When asked about Syria, Trump invariably refers to his opposition to the Iraq war, correctly pointing out that our invasion led directly to the rise of the Islamic State and its expansion into Syria. Watching him drop that bomb in the midst of the last Republican debate was certainly a fun moment: the look on Jeb Bush’s face as the frontrunner scored points off his brother was absolutely priceless.
Trump is certainly no libertarian, and his economic views – especially his protectionist rhetoric – are in many ways the exact opposite of my own. I also think his plan – if it can be called that – for deporting tens of millions of “illegal aliens” from the United States is absurd: it isn’t going to happen, nor should it. And yet, in spite of his protestations that he’s “the most militaristic person in this room,” it turns out he is very far from that.
What Trump represents is a strain of American populism that defies categorization: it is neither “left” nor “right,” but simply an inchoate expression of the yearnings, anxieties, and frustrations of the average American at a given point in time. As such, Trumpism applied to the foreign policy front is a protest from the American heartland, a cry from the lips of practically everyone in the country excluding the Washington Beltway: “Why us?”
Why is it up to us to pick and choose among the many candidates for Syria’s rulers? Why are we meddling in the business of Ukraine, a country where we have no vital interests and where we are on the hook for billions of dollars we don’t have? Why must we solve the world’s problems when we have plenty on our plate at home?
The Washington know-it-alls treat these questions with disdain, smirking and rolling their eyes at such brazen “isolationism.” The “experts,” the policy wonks, the politicians and the foreign lobbyists all shake their heads at such peasant-like provincialism, and then get on with the business of ginning up more wars for others to fight. Trump horrified these people from the very beginning – he, after all, wasn’t a member of the club – but now that he’s challenging the organizing principle of the Establishment’s foreign policy – the idea that America is indeed the policeman of the world – just watch them go after him like they never have before.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).