Doing Nothing Is Better Than Acting

A. Trevor Thrall

The Bashar Assad regime’s most recent chemical weapons attack in
Idlib province killed dozens of people and injured many
more. It was a cynical and desperate move by a regime that has lost
all legitimacy in the eyes of the world. But the attack was also
our first opportunity to see what the Trump administration would do
in response to such a situation. 

The answer, as it turned out, was nothing. As strange as it may
sound, that is the right answer in this case.

President Donald Trump and his team are already
getting plenty of heat from political leaders and
pundits in Washington for their lack of follow up. Over time they
can expect increasing pressure to act. Many Americans, like people
all around the world, are shocked and horrified and they will
expect the president to do something about it. Obama drew fire from
both the left and right for his inaction in the wake of the massive
2013 sarin attack near Damascus that killed more
than 1,000 people. 

The Trump administration
is making a smart foreign policy decision not to intervene in Syria
after the recent chemical attack.

But Trump may find himself facing even greater expectations
thanks to his vocal criticism of President Barack Obama’s handling
of Syria throughout his presidential campaign. And on Tuesday the
administration doubled down, with White House Press Secretary Sean
Spicer laying the blame for the most recent attack on Obama,
arguing “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish
a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did
nothing.”

This is not to say that doing nothing is always the right
course. Sometimes the United States can and should act, as it often
does in response to earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural
disasters. And it is certainly true that the United States has at
times failed to act when it could have prevented grievous harms.
President Bill Clinton, for example, referred to the failure to
intervene in the Rwandan genocide as one of his greatest regrets

But many problems—like the civil war in Syria—are
beyond America’s ability to solve. Obama didn’t eschew intervention
out of a lack of empathy. He chose not to intervene because he had
learned hard lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq. He knew that even
by putting thousands of American soldiers at risk and at great
financial cost, he simply could not promise that the United States
would be able to stop the fighting and put Syria back together
again. 

And so today, despite the Trump administration’s desire to find
a solution for Syria that does not include getting rid of Assad, it
has acknowledged publicly that it cannot see one. Both Secretary of
State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations, have made clear in recent statements that the United
States will no longer make ousting Assad a central tenet of its
Syria policy. As Sean Spicer told
reporters
 at the White House, “There is not a
fundamental option of regime change as there has been in the
past.”

As the Trump administration comes to appreciate these dynamics
in the case of Syria it should apply the same logic to other
problem areas, especially in places such as North Korea, Yemen and
the South China Sea, where U.S. actions have often done more harm
than good of late.

At least since 9/11, the United States has suffered from a
serious tendency to act before it is obvious that action is the
right strategy. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq might
have seemed urgently necessary in 2001 and 2003, but viewed in
hindsight it is clear that knowing when not to act is critical to
making sound foreign policy. The same logic and prudence must be
applied today to hotspots around the world. Though unsatisfying to
the public, doing nothing is far better than taking a precipitous
action that risks entangling American and Russian forces in Syria,
or worse, one that ends in a war with China over Taiwan or a
nuclear exchange with North Korea. 

Unfortunately, explaining the decision to do nothing is never
easy, especially in the face of tragedies like Syria or the rampant
fears stoked by acts of terrorism at home and abroad. Nuance and
logic provide cold comfort when people are dying. As a result,
doing nothing is also politically quite challenging. Obama’s policy
of not intervening in Syria may have looked like inaction to most
people from the outside, but there is no question that it took an
immense effort politically. 

The upshot is that the Trump administration’s current approach
to Syria is exactly the right one. The administration should
continue to denounce the attack on moral grounds and call on the
Russians and Iranians to exert pressure on Assad to prevent future
attacks. There is little hope that words alone will do much good,
but avoiding further entanglement in a no-win situation is itself
an important, if invisible, victory for U.S. foreign policy.

Trevor
Thrall
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Institute’s
Defense and Foreign Policy Department and associate professor at
George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

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