What FDR could teach Trump about butchers like Assad

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Syrian supporters of President Bashar al-Assad (shown in the portrait) gather in the northern city of Aleppo on April 9, 2018. / George Ourfalian / Getty Images

“Shrimps” and “cheerful idiots.”

The disparaging pet names are decidedly Trumpian in tone, but they were actually the terms President Franklin Roosevelt used to describe isolationists who insisted the rising spread of fascism across Europe was “none of our business.”


As Susan Dunn wrote in her penetrating 2013 book “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler — the Election Amid the Storm”:

“To designate young isolationists, who deluded themselves into believing that America could remain aloof, secure, and distant from the wars raging in Europe, Roosevelt liked the amusing term ‘shrimps’ — crustaceans possessing a nerve cord but no brain.

“In that critical month of May 1940, he finally realized that it was probably a question of when, not if, the United States would be drawn into war. Talk about neutrality or noninvolvement was no longer seasonable as the unimaginable dangers he had barely glimpsed in 1936 erupted into what he termed a ‘hurricane of events.’ ”

Of course by December of 1941, the “shrimps’ ” resistance was rendered moot — the Japanese attacked us on U.S. soil, drawing us immediately into WWII. Many, looking back on the horrors of Hitler, rightly wonder if we waited too long — if being personally and militarily attacked was too high a moral and ethical bar to intervene in the brutal genocide and dangerous political powder kegs unfolding an ocean away.

Indeed, in ensuing decades, America would wrestle with this existential quandary time and time again, from Vietnam to Bosnia to Rwanda.

And here we are again. An ocean away, another genocide unfolds, but this time before our very eyes. It’s both an ethnic cleansing of Sunni Syrians who would get in the way of Bashar Assad’s Alawite grip on power, but also a relentless and indiscriminate extermination of anyone — including at least 50,000 children thus far — who happens to have the awful fate of living in rebel- or ISIS-held territories.

Half a million Syrians are already gone, obliterated from the earth. Millions more are displaced, leaving more Syrians residing outside of Syria, if you can call languishing in refugee camps with no schools or hospitals, “residing.”

The latest chemical attack on civilians, most likely by the Assad regime, is horrific. But it is hardly the first. According to a recent report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assad has used internationally prohibited weapons against his own people as many as 200 times.

And yet, many westerners insist that this is none of our business.

Their queasiness is understandable. U.S. intervention, especially in modern times, has had a checkered history.

But by nearly every standard, the Syrian crisis constitutes a reason for America’s unparalleled might and moral fortitude to exert her influence and help bring an end to this international disaster.

For one, Syria is not just a “civil war.” Borders are not boundaries. Whether the radicalization of jihadists by Assad, failure to contain and eradicate ISIS, the abdication of regional power to bad actors Russia and Iran or the existential threat to allies like Israel, it’s impossible to claim the Syrian war is truly contained on its own terrain.

For another, surrounding countries and western allies are being crushed by the economic burden of supporting millions of refugees. Trump just froze $200 million in funds for Syrian recovery. The region’s economic emergency will only worsen if other nations follow suit. The longer this war languishes, the bigger the global national security threat becomes.

Finally, as was the case in 1940, “neutrality is no longer seasonable.” Assad is a butcher and a war criminal. And every time he flouts international law with no repercussions or global accountability he is conditioning the environment for the next Assad, or worse.

In the 1930s, the face of the isolationist resistance was Charles Lindbergh, the celebrated hero pilot, who’d been charmed in pre-war Germany by Hitler’s own number two, Hermann Goering. At the time, Hitler was, to Mrs. Lindbergh, “a very great man, like an inspired religious leader.” Lindbergh himself raved about “the genius this country has shown in developing airships,” and — yes — the “scientific skill of the race.” Lindbergh asserted the Reich was a “stabilizing factor” in Europe in the 1930s, according to Dunn.

He also believed Hitler’s plans for European domination were none of America’s business. Unless the “American people bring it on” by meddling, she was safe: “There will be no invasion by foreign aircraft, and no foreign navy will dare to approach within bombing range of our coasts.”

How wrong that turned out to be.

We may not need fear Assad’s navy or air force here at home, but his influence on the world is undoubtedly far-reaching. And history will not judge us kindly for standing by as a butcher slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocents, with the help of UN member states, in his sick ploy to preserve his own power.

And so it is up to President Trump, who fancies himself the world’s greatest salesman and dealmaker, to sell us and the rest of the world — indeed the shrimps and cheerful idiots — on action in Syria.

Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.

This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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