As someone who has opposed Donald Trump since he announced his presidency, recent political developments have caused me to second-guess some of my previous perceptions. On the campaign trail, Trump parroted an isolationist military policy and xenophobic international measures. By launching missiles against an Assad airbase in response to a chemical attack on civilians, however, Trump signaled a monumental shift in foreign policy. Influenced by Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who bring extensive military experience to the table, Trump has rejected isolationism in favor of a strong stand against the world’s worst individuals. Trump’s move of naval forces to North Korea’s vicinity, as well as his use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in history against the Islamic State, also make strong statements that this administration will not tolerate the wholesale murder of civilians.
I consider dictators like Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be the most evil individuals alive. Yet, while many share similar views, the U.S. seems to have lost its willingness to liberate the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable people. After the costly and poorly executed Iraq war, many seem to believe American intervention is powerless as a tool to protect global human rights. Historically targeted groups like Ashkenazi Jews and ethnic Bosnians, however, would likely disagree.
Inaction can be costlier than action. This axiom is the justification for most modern war, exemplified by the lack of American response to the Rwandan Genocide. Rwanda is a perfect example of the often unpredictably high opportunity cost of war, as Bill Clinton’s fears about how foreign intervention might affect his 1996 reelection chances cost thousands of lives. Clinton’s decision not to intervene was a gamble, one paid in the blood of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. Today, many argue America should have done more in Rwanda and less in Iraq, but hindsight is 20/20.
With imperfect U.S. intelligence, we cannot expect both perfect accuracy and expediency from our leaders. Following the Clinton administration’s failure to act in Rwanda, George W. Bush faced the September 11 attacks and a rapidly destabilizing Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s genocidal dictatorship actively made the world a far more dangerous place, but given today’s sectarian violence in Iraq, in retrospect, toppling the Hussein regime seems unwise. As Hussein’s dictatorship repressed bubbling social tension, the alternative of simply leaving Iraq alone would likely have been preferable. Given Hussein’s penchant for violence, however, this is far from being a given.
The situations in Syria, the Islamic State and North Korea pose the same question as Iraq in 2003: leave a brutal dictator in place, or create a power vacuum in one of the world’s most volatile regions? After failures in Iraq, Assad seems to be the lesser of the two evils, but he is still quite evil. In the Islamic State and North Korea, regime change may be desirable, but logistics pose significant obstacles. The American public does not support unilaterally forcing regime change in Syria, which is understandable. However, if we choose to allow dictators like Assad, Jong-un and Baghdadi to continue ruling through our unwillingness to oust them, taking steps to actively minimize their human rights atrocities seems our humanitarian duty. Through decisive force, Trump has refused to make the same sort of gamble that Clinton made in Rwanda. When considering foreign intervention, we must make a morbid calculation of foreign blood against domestic money, and Trump has chosen saving foreign lives.
After reflection, Trump’s bombings of Syria and the Islamic State seem like wins. Although detractors feared the U.S. would be drawn into a protracted quagmire, that has not yet been the case. Trump’s actions have resulted in neither war nor increased spending abroad, but rather a supportive international community with a renewed willingness to enforce the Geneva Conventions where most needed. Bombing the Syrian airbase told people at home and abroad to have hope for the Trump administration, showed millions of Syrians that atrocities would not go unpunished and rebuffed Putin and Assad, all while holding to the highest possible ethical standard for warfare.
I have found Trump to be repugnant as president overall, but criticism of him loses credibility with refusal to acknowledge merit. In the past weeks, Trump has shown the world’s worst violators of human rights that their actions have consequences, a positive sign about this administration’s current trajectory, even for the most steadfast Never Trumper.