When the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad allegedly used gas on its own citizens again, they probably had to think a lot harder than they did under the Obama administration. Back then, they perpetrated gas attacks on their own people, and, despite the fact that Obama said that chemical weapons were the “red line” by which he would judge his engagement, when they crossed it he did nothing.
So, was that one of the low points for Barack Obama during his presidency? One might think so, wouldn’t one?
Yet, on the contrary, Obama has said he was “very proud” of how he acted by not striking when Syria crossed the red line (that he himself had set), leading to Syria crossing it again. And again. And, while there’s been no confirmed strikes by the Trump administration against Syrian targets thus far — as of this writing, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted the United States wasn’t behind a missile attack on a Syrian airbase, although she said they were closely monitoring “disturbing reports” of a gas attack — you can bet that Assad is thinking a lot more about the possibility of a strike now that Obama isn’t president.
The remarks in question came during an interview for an April 2016 piece for The Atlantic written by Jeffrey Goldberg. That piece, “The Obama Doctrine,” was an unsurprisingly uncritical Obama hagiography detailing with why the Obama administration decided not to strike the Syrians even though intelligence showed they had probably gassed their own civilians. Needless to say, the piece hasn’t aged well.
“While the Pentagon and the White House’s national-security apparatuses were still moving toward war,” Goldberg wrote, “the president had come to believe that he was walking into a trap — one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.”
Yes, the president, its allies and the rest of the world may have expected the president to do what he said he was going to do if the Syrian regime used weapons of mass destruction, but Obama knew that was a trap! He’s not playing 3D chess, he’s playing 11D Monopoly. Take note, folks — this is how it’s done.
Among Obama’s misgivings: Even though the strikes would target the military unit that released the chemical weapons, there still could be innocent civilian casualties, particularly if the Syrians used human shields; the intelligence “wasn’t a slam dunk,” according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, even though it was “still robust”; and Obama was worried that Assad would weather the attack and be able to claim he came out stronger while the United States had violated a U.N. mandate, among other reasons.
One of the other reasons sounds like classic Obama thinking, as well.
“Obama also shared with (White House Chief of Staff Denis) McDonough a long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries,” Goldberg wrote. “Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had ‘jammed’ him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.”
So, Obama came up with another solution to the problem.
“At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, which was held the week after the Syria reversal, Obama pulled Putin aside, he recalled to me, and told the Russian president ‘that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.’
“Within weeks, Kerry, working with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would engineer the removal of most of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal — a program whose existence Assad until then had refused to even acknowledge.”
And that worked swimmingly, didn’t it?
Despite his failure to act, the president was decidedly defiant when interviewed by Goldberg.
“I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told Gopldberg.. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake.
“And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made — and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
Other world leaders did not feel the same way, including France’s then-prime minister, Socialist Party member Manuel Valls.
“By not intervening early, we have created a monster,” Valls said. “We were absolutely certain that the U.S. administration would say yes. Working with the Americans, we had already seen the targets. It was a great surprise. If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.”
Things would be. In fact, things weren’t even as rosy as they thought back then, when it was believed that Assad had actually dismantled his chemical weapons stockpile, as per the agreement.
He didn’t, and used them again on his people.
Unlike with Obama, Trump was willing to strike back when the Syrian strongman crossed the “red line.” One can imagine he was “very proud” of his decision, too. Only one of the presidents deserved to be.
You can probably guess which one I’m thinking of.
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