Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Hall of Mirrors in Syria

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by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review


Syria is weird for reasons that transcend even the bizarre situation of bombing an abhorrent Bashar al-Assad who was bombing an abhorrent ISIS — as we de facto ally with Iran, the greater strategic threat, to defeat the more odious, but less long-term strategic threat, ISIS.


Trump apparently hit a Syrian airfield to express Western outrage over the likely Syrian use of chemical weapons. Just as likely, he also sought to remind China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea that he is unpredictable and not restrained by self-imposed cultural, political, and ethical bridles that seemed to ensure that Obama would never do much over Chinese and Russian cyber-warfare, or Iranian interception of a U.S. warship or the ISIS terror campaign in the West or North Korea’s increasingly creepy and dangerous behavior.


But the strike also raised as many questions as it may have answered.


Is Trump saying that he can send off a few missiles anywhere and anytime rogues go too far? If so, does that willingness to use force enhance deterrence? (probably); does it also risk further escalation to be effective? (perhaps); and does it solve the problem of an Assad or someone similar committing more atrocities? (no).


Was the reason we hit Assad, then, because he is an especially odious dictator and kills his own, or that the manner in which he did so was cruel and barbaric (after all, ISIS burns, drowns, and cuts apart its victims without much Western reprisals until recently)? Or is the reason instead that he used WMD, and since 1918 with a few exceptions (largely in the Middle East), “poison” gas has been a taboo weapon among the international community? (Had Assad publicly beheaded the same number who were gassed, would we have intervened?)


Do we continue to sort of allow ISIS to fight it out with Syria/Iran/Hezbollah in the manner of our shrug during the Iran-Iraq War and in the fashion until Pearl Harbor that we were okay with the Wehrmacht and the Red Army killing each other en masse for over five months in Russia? Or do we say to do so cynically dooms innocents in a fashion that they are not quite as doomed elsewhere, or at least not doomed without chance of help as is true in North Korea?


Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Syria, deriding the Iraq War, and questioning the Afghan effort. Does his sudden strike signal a Jacksonian effort to hit back enemies if the mood comes upon us — and therefore acceptable to his base as a sort of one-off, don’t-tread-on-me hiss and rattle?


Or does the strike that was so welcomed by the foreign-policy establishment worry his supporters that Trump is now putting his suddenly neocon nose in someone’s else’s business? And doing so without congressional authorizations or much exegesis?


Does the Left trash Trump for using force or keep quiet, given the ostensible humanitarian basis for the strike, and the embarrassing contrast with Obama, whose reset with Russia led to inviting Putin into the Middle East to solve the WMD problem that we could not, and which Obama and Susan Rice not long ago assured us was indeed solved by our de facto friend at the time Putin?


These dilemmas, apart from Obama’s prior confusion about Syria and Russia, arise in part because Trump never thought it wise or necessary to resolve contradictions in Trumpism — especially at what point the long overdue need to restore U.S. respect and deterrence to end “lead from behind” appeasement becomes overseas entanglements not commensurate with Trump’s “America First” assurances. At some point, does talking and tweeting toughly (“bomb the sh** out of ISIS”) require a Tomahawk missile to retain credibility? And does “Jacksonianism” still allow blowing some stuff up, but not doing so at great cost and for the ideals of consensual government rather than immediate U.S. security?


Most likely for now, Trump’s strike resembles Reagan’s 1986 Libyan bombing that expressed U.S. outrage over Libyan support for then recent attacks on Americans in Berlin. But Reagan’s dramatic act (in pursuit of U.S. interests, not international norms) did not really stop Moammar Qaddafi’s support for terrorists (cf. the 1988 likely Libyan-inspired retaliatory Lockerbie bombing) or do much else to muzzle Qaddafi.


About all we can say, then, about Trump’s action was that he felt like it was overdue — or like a high-school friend once put to me after unexpectedly unloading on a school bully who daily picked on weaklings, “It seemed a good idea at the time.”
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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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