Former President Barack Obama’s prime directive on foreign policy, “Don’t do stupid stuff,” is looking better every day Donald Trump inhabits the White House.
In the summer of 2013, Trump warned then-President Obama in dozens of tweets to “stay out” of Syria and focus on problems at home. Intervention, he said, would only risk hurting civilians and empowering would-be terrorists. “We should stay the hell out of Syria,” he tweeted in June 2013, after Obama directed American forces to increase support to Syrian rebels in the wake of chemical attacks by government forces.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly said he would not intervene militarily in Syria and promised to stop Syrian refugees from entering the United States. In February 2016, he told supporters that he could look Syrian children in the face and say, “You can’t come,” because their parents might be terrorists. “They may be ISIL, they may be ISIL-related. It could be a Trojan horse. If 2% of those people are bad, the trouble is unbelievable.”
And despite his opposition to intervention, Trump repeatedly urged Obama to seek congressional approval to carry out punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, warning that Obama would be making a “big mistake” if he failed to do so.
So it’s ironic, to say the least, that Trump said he was deeply shaken by images of dead and dying children, apparently stricken by chemical weapons, so he abruptly ordered a missile attack on a Syrian airfield April 6. Coincidentally, Trump has been trying to distract the public from news of the FBI probe of his campaign’s possible ties with Russian hackers, oligarchs and spies.
Trump told Russians he was attacking Syria’s Shayrat air base before he told Congress, and the Russians passed the word to their Syrian allies, who apparently cleared the airfield of forces and working aircraft before the Tomahawk missiles arrived.
The missile strike apparently did limited damage to the Syrian air force, which was back to launching warplanes from the same airfield the next day to bomb the same town, albeit apparently with conventional weapons.
The attack, with 59 Tomahawk guided missiles, occurred on the night of April 6, as Trump was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Trump hoped to convince the Chinese president to influence North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, but after the Chinese leader left the US, Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, called the Syria strike the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles. In an analysis, Xinhua also said Trump had ordered the strike to distance himself from Syria’s backers in Moscow, to overcome accusations that he was “pro-Russia.”
The official Chinese account of the talks did not mention North Korea, an omission that was probably an intentional rsponse to the attack on Syria, Jane Perlez reported in the New York Times.
Xinhua’s commentary mentioned American missile attacks on Libya in 1986 and Sudan in 1998, and scolded the United States for not achieving its “political goals” in those instances.
“It has been a typical tactic of the US to send a strong political message by attacking other countries using advanced warplanes and cruise missiles,” the article said.
Trump also blamed Obama for failing to use force against Assad after the dictator first used chemical weapons in 2013.
“I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand,” Trump said April 5 at the White House. “And when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat. I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country.”
In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in March 2016, Obama said he was “very proud” of his decision in August 2013 not to follow up on his threat to attack the Assad regime in Syria if it crossed the “red line” and deployed chemical weapons.
“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.”
This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook,” Goldberg wrote.
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” Obama said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
Instead, Obama got Assad to agree to have his chemical weapons removed, with Assad’s Russian sponsors guaranteeing the removal. Now it appears that Russia may not have been a reliable guarantor, but in the meantime Obama and allies in the Mideast were able to concentrate on providing support for attacks on “Islamic State” jihadists that have constricted their operations in Syria and Iraq.
Juan Cole has noted the Assad regime probably has 80% of the Syrian population under its authority now — “all the major cities plus some of the countryside, whereas the rebels have only a couple urban enclaves and then mostly rural villages. Moreover, populations like those in Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus are grateful to be living under even a brutal one-party state rather than under the mostly fundamentalist rebels, some of whom are openly allied with the al-Qaeda-linked Syrian Conquest Front (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra or the Support Front).”
Syria is probably about 6% Christian, 3% Druze, 14% Allawi, 2% Shiite, 10% Kurdish– i.e. about 35% minorities, Cole wrote. “Then, of the 65% that are Sunni Arabs, a majority are secular-minded and, as in West Aleppo, are just as afraid of al-Qaeda and ISIL as are the minorities. So al-Assad would almost certainly get a majority of the votes in any free and fair election at the moment. That doesn’t mean people like living under a one-party state or one that tortures. It just means that the rebel opposition turned to an extremist Sunni discourse that scared the minorities and secularists. The Saudi-backed Army of Islam, tagged as ‘moderate’ by Obama’s CIA, thundered against the wretched Allawi heretics, as they called them, and no state erected by this Saudi candidate would offer a decent life to Syria’s minorities.”
There are few good choices in Syria. The US might be able to topple Assad, but that would just create another crisis over who would take over, and it would leave other rival factions killing innocent children and sectarians. Obama was right to forget the red line. Trump should remember his own counsel. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2017
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