Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.

It is in this vital national national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

-Donald Trump, April 6, 2017

Short version of this post: is he right?

Long version: Defining our “vital national security interests” is hard, mostly because I don’t think everyone in the country can agree upon what they are.  We’ve fought some extremely questionable wars and quite a few downright stupid ones that split public opinion because so many Americans disagreed that the thing we were going to war over was the sort of thing we should have been fighting for.

For example, Americans living in the west might have thought the War of 1812 was a great idea in the face of perceived British arming and agitating the Indian tribes, but it wasn’t such a good idea to New Englanders who felt that the war would be needless and disastrous for the maritime trade that was vital to their economic well-being.  The low level of public support made waging that war very difficult.  Still, there were grievances that the US had against the British Empire at the time and those were ultimately resolved by the time the war ended.

Sometimes, the reason for going to war is a good one, but war isn’t necessarily the best option.  Consider the Iraq War.  I think most people did agree that preventing nuclear weapons proliferation was a vital national security interest, but those who disagreed questioned whether war was the most desirable option to attain that particular goal.  We’re still dealing with the consequences of that war and will be for a long time to come.  We seem to have created a vital national security interest worse than the one that existed under the old regime.

Then you get operations like Libya, in which there wasn’t any discernible vital national security interest nor was war a good option.  Same as Iraq, we may have created a threat to our vital national security interests where one didn’t exist before.

In Syria, I’m not sure what the vital national security interest is for seeking the removal of the Assad regime or even attacking it.  We are bound by no treaties to involve ourselves in that war.  Syria is not a threat to us.  We have no major economic interests there either.

Maybe the issue is that Assad has killed his own people.  If so, why single out that one country?  Lots of countries do it.  Is it that he used chemical weapons?  If so, what does it matter to us if he uses them within his own borders?

What’s needed is a discussion about what the vital national security interests of the United States are and when it is appropriate to use military force to serve them.

This is a Discourses post.  Don’t waste time trying to prove right or wrong or use any personal attacks.  This isn’t the place for it.  It’s a “safe space” as the college kids say these days.  The goal is to sound out all ideas without anyone being shouted down, to learn, and to get a greater understanding of the issue.  You don’t get that when you bitch at each other.

Here are a few questions to serve as conversation starters.  You don’t have to answer any of them to join the discussion, but some people may find it helpful to have a jumping-off point.

  1. What are the vital national security interests of the United States anyway?  What would you consider to be some of the primary economic, political, and military interests worth fighting about?
  2. When is war the best option and if we do choose war, how far should we take it in instances in which our vital national security interests are threatened?  Regime change, total war, limited retaliatory strikes, or what?
  3. Who should the President of the USA need to obtain approval from before launching an attack against another country that has threatened our vital national security interests, if anybody?  The UN?  Congress?  In what circumstances does he need no no approval from anyone?

I’m really wondering about this.  It doesn’t seem to me that anything going on in Syria is a vital interest to us or that Trump’s unilateral response was appropriate, but I want to know what you guys think.

9 comments

  1. 1.) we can’t define a “vital” national security interest anymore because everything is when seen through the prism of a world economy. In your Iraq example we decided that weapons of mass destruction were a bad thing in saddam’s hands so we went to war. One of the trade offs at the time I remember the pro-war side distinctly championing was that with an oppressive dictator out of the way the Middle East would be liberated to enjoy color tv, Coca Cola and bikinis.

    I think many of our foreign exploits are seen this way now, whether we’re winning a future ally that will buy shit, or are we liberating a resource from a dictator so it can be used to pay for shit. If you think about it from the perspective of someone sitting on a board, your only obstacle to opening a new market of five million people in Iran to your product is an oppressive regime and you might make a case for invading that nation if only for the idea of profiting.

    You can say it’s foolish but really the only thing keeping Assad in power right now is Russia’s determination to keep the only network of pipelines for natural gas competition free. If Syria were liberated of Assad the next government could easily build a pipeline into Europe through turkey and Russia would be screwed. Isis knows this too because they also draw much of their funding by selling crude from the lands they conquer.

    2.) it’s hard to say in the 21st century because what is war now? Drone strikes? Crippling cyber attacks? Is the loss of life a threat or damage to vital infrastructure and economy? We’re waging soft wars everyday with nations that manipulate currency, tinker with trade deals and cyber attack our elections.

    I’d argue that a nation like Russia tinkering with our elections and putting an idiot in the White House will have longer lasting damage than a naval war. This person can appoint judges, enact damaging executive orders, be goaded into pointless foreign intervention and permanently damage our treaties and allied relationships without Russia spending the money to drop one bomb.

    3.) if we were legitimately threatened we could dispense with who needed to ok action. Right after 9/11 the president enjoyed 90 percent approval for seemingly any action related to destroying the perpetrators of those attacks. It only got contentious when he threw Iraq in the mix.

    No one had an issue with the USA entering the war with Japan after Pearl Harbor, but I do acknowledge that the trend since that attack has been us deciding preemptively whether we should strike first to prevent a nation from another Pearl Harbor strike. I feel like THAT thinking has gotten us into a lot of trouble and regret.

  2. This has basically been a problem since the end of the first Cold War. We just don’t have the same types of enemies that we did then, and our defense policy has been vague at best as a result. As far as rogue regimes go, “mutual interest” should perhaps be the goal in dealing with Russia and China.

  3. #1 Judge dread his it.. how can vital interests be defined? accesses to oil, Oil prices? freedom of moment on the ocean>? Free trade? Stability of other governments>? for example one thing that i have told people before
    even if the USA became totally oil independent. We would still have to maintain forces over sees to make sure that other nations would not be threatened by sudden shits in acess to oil. Look at China and Japan. both are very dependent on imported oil, and if a crises should emerge where their supplies were cut off or endangered, they would most likely find a means to stabilize the situation in their favor. Japan did that once before… in the 30s and 40s………….
    keeps such allied or neutral, and even adversary nations from being put in a position to make matter more volatile..
    well.. playing world cop i suppose… but you know where that gets us.

    #2 Anything short of a total war, where you do not fundamentally change the enemies government and culture , just leads to you having to return there again later, or at the minimum wasting lives and $$ ..

    #3 limited stikes and operation s , an y all out long lasting operation get congress approval first or a declaration of war.

    isnt there already a legal document on this
    30 days is all teh pres gets then he has to go to congress to approve continued operations?

  4. It seems pretty clear to me that deterring the use and normalization of chemical weapons is of vital interest to the U.S. Punishing nations for violating agreements made with us is of vital interest to the U.S. So those are some pretty key reasons I think the strike in Syria is justified and appropriate.

    But the larger catastrophe of its civil war, despite the human cost, is not really in our vital interest, and not worthy of investing the men and dollars to get too involved with. As a proxy battle in wider geopolitical contests however, it would be stupid of us to ignore completely, as while it may not be a vital interest, it is still of some interest. Tinkering around the edges of the conflict, clandestine efforts, and minor commitments of power and effort are reasonable things the U.S. should be doing there.

    More broadly, our effort and involvement should correlate with our level of interest. It’s not a binary problem. Protecting fundamental principles of the global order, including the U.S.’s leadership in that order, are the kind of things we should really care about, and commit resources to. Protecting the freedom of the seas, encouraging democratic self-government, enforcing global agreements, and preventing the proliferation of WMD are just some of the big-picture vital interests of the U.S., beyond of course the fundamental interest to protect the homeland and citizens from threats.

    Regarding U.S. and Presidential war powers, I have a few thoughts. Internationally, we need to honor our commitments and promises, and work within the international system however possible to achieve our interests. But if that system unfairly or wrongly prevents us from securing our own interests, I am not too concerned about acting independently or leading the way. The U.S. is privileged in many ways to be able to do so, and that is a good thing! So in a hypothetical conflict situation where someone like Russia or China is trying to veto U.S. led international efforts to go after some bad actor, there’s nothing really wrong with ignoring that veto.

    Regarding Presidential power, I think we ought to have a very strong respect for the intention of the founders that warmaking powers should lie with Congress. But the fundamental nature of modern war is simply incompatible with an absolutist or extremist position in favor of Congressional war powers. Swift, prompt military action is such a necessity that the President should be given wide latitude and discretion. Unless we’re talking serious boots-on-the-ground or nation-building type commitments, or major actions that require quick decisions (e.g. responding to an imminent attack on the homeland), the President shouldn’t need to get the pre-approval of Congress (though engaging and having strong respect for them is highly advisable).

    The most extreme scenario is the most illustrative of this concept. We entrust the President with the power to unilaterally kill millions, possibly billions, in a matter of minutes. This power is and should be plenary, as the decision to use such weaponry must be made in less time than my morning shower. It is therefore impossible to need to consult Congress before such action.

  5. I can appreciate most of what you wrote here. However, I think that this:

    We entrust the President with the power to unilaterally kill millions, possibly billions, in a matter of minutes

    is *exactly* why he should need to consult with Congress. I’m not talking about a retaliatory strike. But a first strike? *NO WAY* that I want that decision being made by a single human being.

  6. I’m assuming that your hypothetical first strike does not prevent the imminent attack? Every US citizen that would have been killed without the first strike would have been killed even with our first strike?

    Without enumerating all of the possible scenarios, I tend to find it better, when discussing the abrupt end of millions of lives, for prudence to always be exercised. There may be some fringe cases that you may be able to convince me otherwise but there are none that I can think of, immediately. A preventative strike, where the intel is 100%, might be such a case. But, the general thinking is that nobody wants to be the first to begin a full scale nuclear war. And if, ESPECIALLY if, our doom is sealed, I don’t much care that we fired 2nd, especially if it meant that we had played Stanislav Petrov and made sure that the attack was real.

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