President Donald Trump's heart was long thought to be two sizes too small. But he was suddenly so moved by the sight of Syrian children caught in a nerve gas attack that his nobler impulses overcame him. These were victims he didn't care enough about to admit to the United States as refugees. But he cared enough to blow up some stuff at a Syrian air base on their behalf.
The Syrian attack is the latest case of using the American military for humanitarian intervention -- a term that has become a virtual oxymoron, like "Midwestern skiing" or "national unity." Our presidents have a long practice of using soldiers and warplanes to heal conflict and a long record of opening new wounds.
One early example was Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, ordered in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush to help alleviate a famine brought on by a civil war. How did that work out? Reported The Economist last year, "After a quarter-century of costly foreign intervention, Somalia is still Africa's most-failed state" -- plagued by war, terrorism and, yes, famine.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, a response to the Serbian-dominated government's persecution of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. The NATO air campaign, however, spurred the Serbs into a frenzy of ethnic cleansing and killed some 500 Serbian civilians in raids that "violated international humanitarian law," according to Human Rights Watch.
President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was justified as a favor to the oppressed people of Iraq, who had been brutalized by Saddam Hussein and were expected to greet us as liberators. But in toppling Saddam, we unleashed deadly chaos that persists even now.
A 2013 study led by public health professor Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington concluded that the Iraq war and occupation caused nearly a half-million Iraqi deaths. That's not counting the turmoil in Syria, another regrettable byproduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In Libya, President Barack Obama acted against the alleged prospect of mass slaughter by dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Our intervention played a central role in turning Libya into what it is today: yet another failed state, a cauldron of anarchy and a hotbed of terrorists. Our assumption that nothing could be worse than Gadhafi turned out to be overly optimistic.
Trump's air raid confirms that the main thing Americans have learned from history is that our leaders don't learn from history. He and his advisers say Bashar Assad's savagery could not be excused. But the only savagery that has prompted retaliation involved chemical weapons.
As long as he limits himself to conventional forms of slaughter, the administration has made clear, he can expect to be left alone. If Trump elected to expand our military involvement, on the other hand, the likely consequence would be more bloodshed rather than peace.
If the president were serious about humanitarian concerns, he would not be trying to cut the foreign aid budget -- which has a better record than military force of actually helping the afflicted. George W. Bush set out to curb AIDS in Africa with a program that has saved millions of lives through prevention and treatment.
So what does Trump propose? He proposes to cut U.S. funding for that program by $300 million this year. He is lavishing money on efforts that have proved destructive while shorting those that have worked. As a humanitarian, he's got things backward.
"International public health programs are almost certainly the most cost-effective way to save lives abroad," wrote Dartmouth College political scientist Benjamin Valentino in Foreign Affairs in 2011. "Measles alone killed more than 160,000 people in 2008, almost all of them children. It costs less than $1 to immunize a child against measles, and since not every unvaccinated child would have died from measles, the cost per life saved comes out to an estimated $224."
Public health efforts have other advantages: They make friends, not enemies. They don't kill innocent civilians. They don't shatter societies.
Those advantages count for little among leaders and voters who think the only solutions are military solutions. Our message to the world's unfortunates: If you need bombs dropped or bullets fired, we're here for you. If you need a vaccine, you're on your own.