In the past, Irfan has often threatened to go on blogging hiatus, only to succumb to weakness of will after a few days. So it figures that now he’s gone on blogging hiatus without first threatening it. This may be evidence that his current hiatus is itself a result of weakness of will, or it may just be evidence that he has a life. Or, you know, work.
Whatever the reasons and causes for Irfan’s extended absence, I can’t bring myself to allow a post over two weeks old to stand as the first post on this blog. So, at the risk of revealing my own incompetence, I’m going to write a post about politics.
As everyone knows by now, the United States bombed Syria last Thursday in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on Tuesday. Public reactions to this response have been varied and mixed, but mostly predictable: many conservatives, and most of Trump’s supporters, have praised the action, while many progressives, and most of Trump’s detractors, have criticized it. Much of the criticism that I’ve encountered, however, has laid special stress on Trump’s supposed inconsistency and hypocrisy, with more than occasional speculation that his real motive is not to defend Syrians or anyone else from chemical warfare, but to distract us all from the Russia investigations and to convince us that he’s willing to defy Putin. This line of criticism is also predictable in its way, but it strikes me as misguided.
There is little question that Trump’s decision to bomb Syria is at least apparently inconsistent with his past public proclamations on the topic. In the last five years he has repeatedly denounced U.S. military intervention in Syria on a variety of grounds, and he sharply criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian conflict. His decision Thursday seems especially inconsistent with his insistence in 2013 that Obama needed to seek congressional approval before taking action against Assad, since Trump himself did not seek congressional approval before striking Syria on Thursday. This inconsistency is hardly a surprise, though; a selection of Trump’s greatest hits on Syria shows that he has had apparently inconsistent things to say about it all along. I’m not entirely persuaded that his obiter dicta on Syria reveal any deep inconsistency, but I don’t maintain high expectations of consistency from The Donald. More to the point, even if the decision on Thursday was inconsistent with Trump’s last half a decade of foreign policy bloviation, that inconsistency is irrelevant to what ought to be the central question at hand: is this a good decision?
It should go without saying that politicians can reasonably change their minds. It should perhaps especially go without saying that a president might reasonably change his mind about a complicated practical matter after becoming president and gaining a great deal more information and advice. Though changes of mind are perversely condemned in politics as in professional philosophy, if we consider the kind of person we want to have responsibility for making complex decisions, the last thing we should want is a stubborn bastard who refuses to change his mind. We should want someone who will change his mind when presented with good reasons to change his mind. Knowing that someone has changed his mind does nothing to tell us about whether there were good reasons to change his mind; knowing that a political official’s decision is inconsistent with what he has said in the past does nothing to help us assess the merits of the decision. The left-wing focus on Trump’s inconsistency is a distraction from the central question.
So too is the left-wing focus on Trump’s purported motivations. In 2012, Trump tweeted: “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.” Trump’s approval ratings have not been good, and it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to speculate that this consideration weighed heavily with Trump when he made his decision to bomb Syria. In fact, in light of Trump’s 2012 tweet, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the thought crossed his mind. We might, of course, choose to remind ourselves of the difficulty of knowing exactly what anyone’s motives are, particularly in circumstances in which a variety of different considerations might tell in favor of a particular course of action. I don’t think we have much reason to be skeptical in Trump’s case, though. He’s given us ample reason to believe that calculation of his own narrow self-interest might tip the scales in favor of a decision with terrible consequences for other people. It’s just that, even if Trump’s strongest motive in deciding to strike Syria was to raise his approval rating, that motive is irrelevant to whether the decision was a good one.
It is a mundane fact of human life that people can have bad motives for making the right decision. Fourteen year old Sally studies hard and gets good grades only because she will lose her allowance if she doesn’t; she does the right thing, but not with the right motive. Jeff notices that he could easily steal a pack of beer from the convenient store without anyone noticing, but he decides to pay for it instead because he’s just too scared of somehow getting caught; he does the right thing, but not with the right motive. Ricky treats Samantha in a very respectful, courteous way, but only because he wants to get into her pants; he does the right thing, but not with the right motive. We can criticize Sally, Jeff, and Ricky’s motives, but surely we should not say that Sally should not study hard and get good grades, that Jeff should not pay for his beer rather than stealing it, or that Ricky should not treat Samantha in a respectful, courteous way. Their motives are relevant to our assessment of their character, but not to our assessment of the appropriateness of their actions. So too, even if Trump’s motive is the wrong one, his decision might in fact be appropriate. Even crassly self-interested hypocrites sometimes do the right thing.
Well, did Trump do the right thing? Was bombing Syria the right decision? I can’t pretend to know the answer to that question. I have my suspicions, but it does not seem particularly hard to recognize that the answer is not obvious. On the one hand, it seems unlikely to have any lasting effect without leading to a sustained military campaign that aims at regime change, and, well, we’ve seen how well that’s turned out in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that anything short of military intervention will prevent the further use of chemical weapons, and even from a staunchly isolationist ‘America First’ point of view, there seem to be good reasons to want to prevent the further use of chemical weapons. These are only two simple considerations in what is in fact a bewilderingly complex situation. Aside from those who oppose all military action on principle, anyone with a minimally adequate knowledge of all the relevant facts would presumably acknowledge that the question is vastly more complicated than that.
Even if the right answer is fairly straightforward, though, the general drift of popular anti-Trump responses to the decision has been to ignore the question entirely or to treat it as obviously settled and to focus instead on scoring rhetorical points among other progressives by attacking Trump’s motives and inconsistency. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t find it hard to imagine that many of the same people lambasting Trump’s decision would be praising Hillary Clinton right now for the same decision, or would have praised Obama had he made it. Certainly many of the same people who rejected Obama’s request for congressional approval in 2013 to strike Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons are now praising Trump for doing the same thing without congressional approval. Attitudes to military intervention seem to shift depending on the party affiliation of the presidential administration pushing for the intervention. To be fair, plenty of thoughtful people with divergent political sympathies are admirably consistent on this score; Irfan is a prime example of someone whose objections to military intervention bear no trace of partisanship, and I can think of at least a dozen other people I know whose judgment in this case would have been the same had Hillary Clinton been “the decider.” Most folks, however, are not so consistent or principled as Irfan. Judgment is too often driven by antecedent ideological sympathies and antipathies. If we’re supposed to find fault with Trump’s inconsistency, we should presumably find fault with this inconsistency, as well. If we’re supposed to find fault with Trump’s motives, we should presumably find fault with people whose motive for praising or blaming a military intervention has more to do with political tribalism than principles, too.
To be clear, we should find fault with, or at least be worried about, Trump’s inconsistencies and motives. Too much criticism of Trump focuses on these at the expense of the more important question about what the U.S. should do in Syria, and Trump’s answers to that question cannot be rejected on the grounds that he has changed his mind or that he almost certainly has some suspect motives. His suspect motives and persistent inconsistency should, however, make us skeptical that he can be trusted to make good decisions. I do not know what the U.S. should do in Syria, and I do not know whether Trump’s decision was the right one. But I worry much less about whether it was the right decision than I do about the trustworthiness of Trump’s decision-making in general. We should probably be skeptical of every politician’s motives and decision-making. With Trump, such skepticism seems unwarranted; the evidence suggests that we should lack any confidence that he won’t make a mess of things.
Maybe that lack of confidence is what really lies behind left-wing critiques of the Syria decision, and perhaps it alone gives us reason to think that the decision was the wrong one. But it’s entirely possible that it wasn’t, and if it was, the reason cannot be that Trump is inconsistent, badly motivated, generally incompetent, or a thoroughly rotten person. We know that those things are true, and they’re cause for worry. But criticism of the decision to bomb Syria, and alternative proposals about what to do, need to focus less on Trump and more on, well, what to do.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what to do, or even exactly how to think about what to do. I just know that ranting about Trump’s hypocrisy and inconsistency aren’t going to help us figure out what to do. Not, of course, that it is really a decision that we get to make, or to which we get to make any meaningful contribution. All we can do is talk, and then perhaps write letters, organize protests, and vote. I don’t expect that a blog post will do much to change how we talk about it, but we should. It may not change the outcome, but a more reflective and rational citizenry is better than a collection of partisan rage machines, even if it is ultimately relatively powerless.