President Trump prayed for "God's wisdom" on Thursday night while announcing the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airfield. We're not in the position to provide that, but here's man's wisdom, which should be crystal clear to anyone who has lived through the past two decades:
A war to take out Syrian President Bashar Assad would be a disastrous folly that would endanger American security, aid the Islamic State and al Qaeda, and may not make the innocents in Syria any safer.
Trump needs to reject the voices in Congress and the media calling for regime change, and find a way to limit his military strikes as narrowly as possible to his stated goal of deterring Assad's chemical attacks. And if Trump wants to keep the threat of future strikes in his quiver, he should immediately seek a congressional authorization.
Assad is an evil and murderous dictator. That doesn't mean the world will be better off if we kill him or depose him by force. Recall that Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi were evil and murderous dictators.
George W. Bush's regime change in Iraq was a mistake. It destabilized the region, empowered and emboldened Iran, aided al Qaeda, and created an environment where the Islamic State could flourish and grow. The war cost thousands of American lives, hundreds of billions of American dollars, and all of President Bush's political capital.
We took out something bad, and something worse took its place. Then we got bogged down in years of deadly, costly, ugly nation-building.
Barack Obama's regime change in Libya was also a mistake. First, it trampled the Constitution because he never sought congressional authorization. As in Iraq, decapitating Libya created a vacuum into which all sorts of terrorist and militants swarmed.
Obama didn't do the lengthy costly nation-building. He just cut and run from Libya. The country became a safe haven and a recruiting ground for the Islamic State. The chaos, the weapons and the Islamic State spread from Libya into surrounding countries. Again, taking out something bad made room for something worse.
It's not guesswork or pessimism to say a similar thing would happen in Syria. We know who would rush in to fill the void if we eliminated the Assad regime, because they are already perched right there on the doorstep of Damascus: the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
The experience in Iraq should show us how unlikely we are to successfully install a friendly or liberal government in place of Assad. We have no idea what the appetite amongst Syrians for such a government, or what a "popular government" in Syria would look like. Given the raging civil war, pervasive sectarianism, Russian involvement, ubiquitous weapons, and multiple terrorist groups, Syria is even more complicated than Iraq was.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke prudently when she said, "We are prepared to do more, but hope that won't be necessary."
This is a reasonable stance (and it may in the end prove wise), but it raises another pressing question: legality. If Trump wants to maintain the threat to strike Syria's military if the regime uses chemical weapons again, he must seek congressional approval.
Seeking congressional authorization would allow a debate, which is fitting in a democracy. It wouldn't tip our hand (a constant concern of Trump's), but instead would stand as an ultimatum.
Time will tell if Thursday's Tomahawk strike and Trump's pledge to retaliate against chemical weapons use is wise and effective. But when the question of regime change comes up, time already has told us how that will turn out.