When Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched the 21st century’s second deadliest chemical weapons attack on Tuesday, President Trump must have paged through President Obama’s playbook in responding to this century’s deadliest chemical attack less than four years earlier and resolved to do exactly the opposite. It turns out he’s onto something.
When pro-regime Syrian forces gassed the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta in 2013, a year after President Obama warned Assad that use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, the Obama administration spent three weeks preparing to do something.
Cognizant that the American public was overwhelmingly opposed to military action, it decided to win congressional authorization first. Unwilling to act alone, the administration worked to secure international support for and participation in U.S.-led retaliatory air strikes.
Concerned that U.S. military action against the Assad regime would raise expectations of a broader policy shift against Assad, making it even harder to persuade the rebels to attend U.S.-brokered peace talks, Obama administration officials worked to deflate these hopes. Secretary of State John Kerry famously assured the world that the planned strikes would be “unbelievably small.”
|Obama’s response to Assad’s 2013 chemical attack was a legendary failure.
The result was a legendary failure. Angry over the intentionally negligible scope of the planned air strikes, congressional Republicans withdrew their support. Britain’s parliament voted against air strikes, while NATO allies demurred with the exception of France. Moves to secure an Arab League resolution fizzled.
President Obama ended up abandoning the planned attack in favor of a Russian-brokered commitment from Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons arsenal. Not only was the agreement not fully implemented — smaller-scale chemical weapons use continued intermittently until this week — but it forced the international community to acknowledge and deal with Assad for the first time since the civil war began, leading Sunni governments to step up support for militant Islamists and paving the way for Russia’s military intervention the following year.
Obama’s former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, later conceded that his handling of the crisis, “sent a mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but to the world.”
President Trump appears to have learned all these lessons in the wake of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province on Tuesday. He acted unilaterally, neither waiting for nor requesting the participation of other nations. He felt no inclination to shield himself from public backlash by seeking authorization from congress. And he acted quickly, with airstrikes coming less than three days later.
|Trump’s response was quick, unilateral, and politically courageous.
Rather than assuring everyone beforehand that the planned strike would not change Washington’s posture in Syria, Trump hinted at further action, “to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria” and “end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
Although Trump’s military action was every bit as limited as the air strikes planned by the Obama administration four years ago, it is likely to be far more effective in achieving its aims.
In addition to sending a clear message to the Assad regime that the U.S. will not hesitate to punish further use of chemical weapons, Trump’s military action signals unmistakably to other states in possession of unconventional weapons that the U.S. will respond forcefully to their use. The fact that the Trump administration was visibly warming to Assad as of the beginning of this week underscores that improved relations with Washington won’t offer much protection against the consequences of WMD use.
By washing away the stain of Obama’s shameful handling of the 2013 Ghouta attack, Trump’s bold action will make it easier for the U.S. to establish and enforce red lines regarding other adversaries on a range of other issues without having to resort to force.
But here’s the kicker. Ordinarily, an American president launching unilateral military action without United Nations approval or anything but pro forma consultation with allies would elicit howls of protest from the international community — doubly so, you’d think, if his name happened to be Donald Trump. The astonishingly favorable reaction to the strike throughout the world underscores that bold American leadership and decisive action are the way to win friends, not multilateralism and diplomatic nicety.
Originally published in the Hill under the title “Trump Learned from Obama’s Mistakes and Took Action.”