It was a sure sign that emotion had once again trumped reason when both the left and the right agreed that Trump had a moral imperative to attack the Syrian air base. The implication was that the United States should intercede with force whenever barbarism takes place in the world, or more specifically, when photos of barbarism reach the White House and the general public.
The missile attack will do nothing to change the course of the conflict, as Bashar Al-Assad is becoming more entrenched, not less, due to Russia and Iran assisting his regime, and to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the USA having conflicting aims in the country. But if the brutal dictator were ever to be overthrown, the Christians, Alawites and other religious minorities that depend on him for protection would be butchered in gruesome ways by Sunni barbarians. Imagine the photos of that.
The butchering would probably rival the butchering that happened in Iraq after the awful dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown. How many Iraqis died in that humanitarian cause? Was it 100,000 or 150,000? Sorry, but the brain goes numb when carnage gets this high.
That would be the same Saddam Hussein, by the way, who was our ally until he invaded the rump nation of Kuwait (with our implicit blessing). Previously, we had sold arms to him, supported him in his attacks against Iran, and essentially did nothing when he gassed 50,000 Kurds in the late 1980s.
Pundits on the left and right say that Trump sent a message around the world with the missile attack, a message that the USA is not afraid to take military action. They must think that the world has collective amnesia and has forgotten our long history of taking military action, most recently with two wars in Iraq and one war in Afghanistan.
It’s also hard to forget that a half-century ago we dropped over a million tons of bombs on Vietnam and Laos, in what was seen back then by both the left and right as a moral cause of saving the Vietnamese from the evils of communism. The tonnage included dumb bombs, guided bombs, cluster bombs, and the jellied gasoline known as napalm, which burned alive men, women and children and turned them into charcoal briquettes.
The cluster bombs are still killing men, women and children in Laos, which is known as the land of a million bombs. This sobriquet comes from the estimated 260 million cluster bombs that were dropped on the poor country, many of which still lie buried until an adult or child disturbs one of them and is blown to bits. Where are the photos of their bloody remains?
Let’s suspend thinking for a moment and go along emotionally with the notion that the USA has a moral responsibility to take military action whenever innocent men, women and children are being killed in gruesome ways. What would that mean for our foreign policy?
It would mean boots on the ground and/or missile attacks in countries like the Central African Republic, where three years ago Muslims began killing Christians. You remember the heartbreaking photos, right? Oh, you didn’t see them? Well, let me describe some of the barbarism.
There was the four-year-old child who had his throat slit in front of his mother. There was the boa constrictor eating a baby in a field next to his dead mother. There was a woman shot in the leg holding her baby whose intestines were spilling out. There was the father who was forced to watch his adult son being tortured with pepper paste, which was put in his ears and nose, nearly asphyxiating him.
Or take South Sudan, where after five decades of civil war, atrocities began anew a few years ago. There were the tanks that flattened a hut and the women and children inside. There were the people burned alive in a church.
If you want to see what life is like in South Sudan in the aftermath of the civil war, watch Hubert Sauper’s documentary, “We Come as Friends.” Sauper takes the viewer inside a Chinese petroleum complex and juxtaposes the scenes of abundance and good life of the Chinese executives and workers with the abject poverty of the surrounding native population. Other scenes show Hillary Clinton, an American movie star, and an American ambassador making fools of themselves when they visit the country.
Sauper’s earlier documentary, “Darwin’s Nightmare,” is about the environmental disaster resulting from Europeans introducing perch in Lake Victoria, which is now devoid of native fish and is becoming extinct of all life. It shows Russian cargo planes flying into Tanzania loaded with arms for sale to bad guys in neighboring countries and flying out loaded with fish for European markets. As Tanzanian men have left their villages to work in the fish industry, young women have followed to work as prostitutes. The result is parentless children and an AIDS epidemic.
Anyway, back to our tour of atrocities.
In Sudan there was the bound young woman writhing on a dirty mattress as an older woman used a razor to cut her clitoris, in a common practice of female genital mutilation.
The worst of the worst was the Rwanda civil war in the early 1990s, which reached new depths of depravity and butchering. It is estimated that in just 100 days, a half-million to a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed by Hutu extremists, mostly by clubs and machetes. Thousands of women were raped and then kept as sex slaves or killed. Some were tortured before being killed, by having their breasts cut off and sharp objects shoved up their vagina. Over the two days of April 15 and 16, 1994, thousands of Tutsis who had sought safety in a Catholic church were executed and their bodies left to rot.
Get the picture?
The organization Genocide Watch certainly gets the picture. Its website lists the countries where genocide is likely to be found, including Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmar, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.
Phew! The USA is going to be very busy if our moral imperative is to send troops and/or missiles into countries where atrocities occur and photos of women and children being slaughtered are seen by Americans, thus causing reason to be trumped by emotion.
I am not suggesting that we don’t have a moral responsibility to do something. I’m suggesting that first we need to identify the root causes of atrocities in each country, figure out if anything can done to address the issues unilaterally or multi-laterally, be honest about what could go wrong and what it would cost, and be realistic about our strategic interests.
In other words, we should replace emoting with reasoning. But it’s irrational for me to think this will ever happen.