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How to Handle Monsters

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It goes without saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a monster. He’s killed thousands of his own citizens, unleashed chemical weapons against rebels, and is closely associated with Iran’s dangerous rulers.
But it also needs to be said, as President John Quincy Adams did, that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Adams was speaking in 1821, explaining the foreign policy of the Founders. His father played a vital role in the creation of the country, and J.Q. Adams helped it grow and thrive decades later. He was serving as Secretary of State when he discussed American foreign policy, and he went on to serve a term as president.

This all matters as we consider how to handle Syria, and its resident monsters, today.

As analyst Marion Smith writes in a Heritage Foundation Special Report, the Founders provide a handy guide about how the country should handle foreign problems today.

“America’s Founders actually advocated and acted upon the idea that prosperity at home comes through active trade abroad and that peace is best secured through military strength and foreign respect of U.S. sovereignty and the principles of liberty,” he writes. They were neither isolationist nor interventionist. They were pragmatic.

He adds that the Founders were wary of permanent political alliances, foreign intrigue at home, and coercive foreign powers. They aimed to protect America’s strategic independence and support U.S. interests. “Early diplomatic efforts were therefore dedicated to maintaining America’s strategic independence at all costs and were aimed at concluding treaties that strengthened U.S. sovereignty.”

Using that standard, the U.S. should only use military force if it serves a vital national interest. That’s a far cry from a Progressive foreign policy, of course. That concept, born a century or so ago, teaches that the U.S. should act only when our interests are not at stake, since promoting our self-interest would be inherently bad. It’s an idea the Founders would have dismissed out of hand.

Despite his progressive tendencies, President Obama seems to be saying he agrees with the Founders. Discussing the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he said: “This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security.” But while the first part of that statement is clearly true, the second part is far from proven.

It is indeed dangerous for Syria to have chemical weapons. But it would be far worse for those weapons to end up in the hands of al Qaeda or Hezbollah terrorists. And while the administration has offered some half-hearted reasons for intervening, it hasn’t explained how U.S. vital interests are at risk, nor has it shown that the American people would be gravely threatened if our military doesn’t intervene.

That doesn’t mean we should do nothing at all. In a recent paper, regional expert Jim Phillips laid out some steps our government should take to contain Syrian aggression. He writes that the U.S. should:

  • Work with friends and allies to prevent terrorists from obtaining Assad’s chemical weapons.
  • Cultivate allies within the Syrian opposition, especially non-Islamist forces that would be willing to monitor the disposition of Assad’s chemical weapons, track their movements, and destroy or seize them if necessary.
  • Work with regional allies to strengthen non-Islamist opposition forces and accelerate the fall of the Assad regime.

Whenever anything bad happens, seemingly anywhere in the world, all eyes seem to turn to the United States. We’re the world’s leading nation, but we cannot be the world’s policeman.

It’s clearly in our best interest to help shape a stable Syria, one that doesn’t threaten its own people or its neighbors and one that surrenders its chemical weapons and other WMD. Those outcomes will require American involvement, but don’t require American military intervention.

It’s a crucial difference, one the Founders would have appreciated. 

 - Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation.

Originally published in Real Clear Politics

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