Lessons from the Syria Strike

The lessons from the April 13, 2018 strike on Syria by the United States of America and its allies do not bode well for the future of democracy or the future of peace.

In fact, the lessons reveal uncomfortable truths about the current state of international affairs.

But they must be confronted, and dealt with, in order to create a better future.

Here are four lessons to take from the Syria strike.


Lesson number one: The Syria strike underscores that the powers of the Presidency, in matters of foreign affairs, are now those of a dictator. 

President Trump, like his forebears, swept aside tepid concern that Congress had to weigh in on the legitimacy of any strike against a foreign power.

Instead, and like his forebears, the President has taken a broad, Caesar-like view of his powers, marshaling American military might as a unitary actor, without any scrutiny.

The most that a few senators and members of Congress could do in the run up to the attack was raise tepid, half-hearted questions over Twitter about the need for Congress to weigh in.

That members of the most powerful legislative body in the world could do nothing other than tweet in the face of missile strikes speaks for itself.  

As noted in the Saleh v. Bush case, the Judiciary will not scrutinize executive conduct, either, because the President is presumed as acting in the best interests of the nation -- even when committing heinous international crimes.

The Legislative and the Judicial branches have walked away from their constitutional roles, and are declining any mandate to oversee the Executive branch in matters of war.

Checks and balances are swept away. And the strike now sets further precedent for unilateral executive authority to attack or invade another country based. It is now one person, and one person alone, who commands American military might, without scrutiny or later accountability.

Lesson number two: The Syria strike underscored that the United Nations system of collective security is dead, and perhaps never coming back.

The U.N. suffered a critical blow to its legitimacy in 2003 because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and then again with the destruction of Libya.

But the Syria strike may end up being the final, fatal stroke to the U.N.

It may never again be perceived as having the power or ability to act as a neutral, honest broker.

Smaller countries are realizing that they are now nakedly at the whim of the great powers. Bolivian president Evo Morales, in perhaps the strongest critique of the strikes to date (other than from Russia), warned that the United States is now the greatest threat to democracy in the world today

The U.N. is now as useless as the League of Nations that proceeded it. And like the League of Nations, it can only stand by as the storms of war gather strength.

The world is quite literally one attack away from a destructive, global war that will spread far beyond the borders of Syria or the Middle East.

Lesson number three: The Syria strike affirms the American two-party consensus that perpetual war, and perpetual imperialism, is the open and intended purpose of American government and economic institutions.

Media outlets, concentrated by a handful of corporate owners, understand and exploit the perverse incentives that make war profitable, and they cheer on a war because it sells viewers to advertisers.

The revolving door in Washington D.C. means that government officials go on to lucrative consulting and think-tank jobs, where they research and advise the next generation of government leaders on how to promote imperialism abroad. 

Tellingly, the voices questioning the Syria strike came from a minority wing of both parties. Perpetual war is the bipartisan consensus. 

Lesson number four: There is a grave political, cultural and spiritual crisis in the United States today. 

War has destroyed the soul of the country and deprived Americans of a stable sense of ethics. 

In any other country, an attack on another country would be the matter of an utmost concern, with protests at all social levels, even threatening the governing political coalition.

But in the United States, where attacks are common, a new military engagement is met with a collective shrug.

Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil; she would write today about the banality of militarism, and the neutering of American public discourse such that war is seen as commonplace and trite.

The U.S. could be a tremendous source of good if it could change its ways and act as a real leader in building meaningful peace, environmental sustainability, and economic opportunity.

But there are few voices advocating for a peacetime economy and an end to imperialism. There are few voices with the imagination to think of something other than empire.