He who defends everything, defends nothing. – Frederick the Great
President Donald Trump may be charged with more short-comings that any other president, but he hasn’t gotten us into a major war – at least until now. And to his credit, he has often proclaimed that we need to pull back from our involvement not just in Syria, but in various other hot spots in Asia and Africa.
Back in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson also recognized the folly of overextending our military involvement around the world – something that historian Paul Kennedy termed “imperial overstretch.” Trump’s oft-proclaimed “American first” policy is certainly reminiscent of those proclaimed by Lyndon Johnson and Paul Kennedy.
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Although Johnson certainly knew better, he could not help himself from getting our nation increasingly involved in the civil war in Vietnam. Despite having said that we must never get bogged down in a land war in Asia, he went against his own better judgment, very likely because he did not want to be remembered as the American president who allowed the communists to take over South Vietnam.
During the last week or so, largely ignoring the advice of his military advisors, Trump has called for the quick withdrawal of the two thousand American troops stationed in Syria. This would be a prime example of his America first policy.
But then came the Syrian government’s chemical attack against its own people and Trump’s promise to respond within 48 hours – a deadline that passed days ago. This is reminiscent of President Obama’s nonresponse to a similar attack.
Obama had warned the Syrian government against using chemical weapons by drawing an infamous “red line in the sand”, which he subsequently ignored after such an attack. Last year, when another chemical attack was carried out against Syrian civilians, Trump quickly ordered a retaliatory attack.
Many Americans – among them Trump’s most vociferous detractors – applauded his quick and measured response to this barbaric act. So why the hesitation after his self-imposed 48-hour deadline?
Trump has criticized his predecessors – most notably President Obama – for telegraphing his military moves, thus giving our enemies a chance to take countermeasures against them. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that Russian missiles would shoot down our missiles.
So we need to ask, “What’s going on here?” My own guess is that while the world waits to see if and when the other shoe drops, Trump is engaged in his own internal debate about responding to the recent chemical attack.
More than fifty years ago President Johnson – who clearly knew the likely consequences – allowed our nation to get dragged into an unwinnable war. But he certainly was a macho man.
Would that description fit President Trump? Macho men do not back down no matter how ill-advised their actions might be. And now he’s gotten himself into a lose-lose situation.
If he orders the attack on Syrian government targets, he gets us even more deeply involved in a war he has been trying to withdraw from. And he would have largely abandoned his America first policy.
But our president is nothing if not a macho man. And such men never back down – no matter what the consequences. While it’s very doubtful that Syria will become Trump’s Vietnam, it appears that no matter what he does – or does not do – both he and our nation will end up losers.
About the Author
Steve Slavin has a PhD in economics from NYU, and taught for over thirty years at Brooklyn College, New York Institute of Technology, and New Jersey’s Union County College. He has written sixteen math and economics books including a widely used introductory economics textbook now in its eleventh edition (McGraw-Hill) and The Great American Economy (Prometheus Books) which was published in August.