Red Line And Green Lights: The Moral And Strategic Bankruptcy Of Trump On Syria

Daily Kos
April 9, 2017

Let’s first acknowledge that Syria is not an easy problem for any American president to deal with. It wasn’t easy for Barack Obama, and it won’t be easy for Donald Trump. This past week, however, Trump demonstrated that his policy on Syria—if one can even call it that—is both morally and strategically bankrupt.
A bit of history: In 2012, Obama laid down a “red line” on chemical weapons. In August 2013, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad crossed it when he authorized a chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 people. After threatening a military response, President Obama ultimately accepted an offer from Assad according to which the Syrian leader owned up to having a chemical weapons program, and would allow the weapons to be removed from the country and destroyed.
The 2013 version of Donald Trump didn’t praise Obama—that would have been impossible since, by that point, he had become the birther-in-chief and was using his opposition to everything Obama did to earn credibility on the right. But Trump in 2013 essentially endorsed what Obama ended up doing—namely, not directly attacking Syrian government forces. Trump made that position quite clear.
Earlier in 2013, Trump had directly stated: “Syria is not our problem.” Then, after the August attacks, he issued a barrage of tweets urging us to not get involved militarily.

Now let’s talk about what Assad did this past week. He used chemical weapons again in an attack that killed at least 100 civilians, including significant numbers of children. This was by far the most deadly chemical attack committed by government forces since 2013, and it occurred on Donald Trump’s watch. More than that, it came just five days after Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a major change in U.S. policy:
QUESTION: About President Assad, should he stay or should he go?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.

In other words, regime change is no longer the goal of the U.S. government. Similarly, our ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, offered: “Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” The White House backed up Tillerson and Haley as well, as per spokesperson Sean Spicer: “There is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now." If Obama had his red line in Syria, this was certainly Trump’s green light.
Having heard that, is anyone surprised that Assad figured he could do whatever he wanted to his own people? Furthermore, is anyone surprised that Trump completely flip-flopped, abandoning years of statements about how the U.S. should stay out of Syria? He said last Wednesday: ”My attitude on Syria and Assad has changed very much … that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me.”
My question is this: why did a chemical attack that killed 100 people lead Trump to take a diametrically opposite position from the one he took after a chemical attack that killed 1,400 people? Why does the attack he ordered on Thursday make sense when an attack didn’t make sense in 2013? How exactly have our interests in Syria changed? How exactly has the moral calculus changed? As Trump stated last October, “I don’t like Assad at all. But Assad is killing ISIS.” How exactly has the strategic calculus in the fight against ISIS and terrorism changed?
What hasn’t changed is Trump’s inability to process cause and effect. Who did he blame for this week’s attack? Who else but Barack Obama:
These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.

Really? First, does Trump understand that tweets don’t disappear just because their author contradicts them? Second—and here’s where cause and effect comes in—the attack resulted from Trump’s weakness and irresolution, not Obama’s. How do we know? Well—and this isn’t too much of a leap here—Trump is the president now, not Obama. Let’s do this nice and slow, in case Trump or one of the members of his understaffed White House is reading: if Assad thought Obama was weak, he’d have unleashed this attack while Obama was president. He did it now because Trump told him it was okay. Trump gave him the green light.
The thing is, the Trump people know this. They, and most importantly the guy the work for, simply have a reflex that anything and everything bad has to be someone else’s fault, and the Obama administration is their target of choice.
Maybe these missile attacks will somehow improve the situation in Syria, whose people have suffered through hell. Hoping for the opposite would violate my deeply held moral values. We have only one president at a time and if what he does helps, then I won’t hesitate to give him credit. But I’m not holding my breath.
Donald Trump has no Syria policy. He has no coherent doctrine or set of principles that guide his approach to the bloody civil war that has ravaged that country for years. By attacking Syria now, he has been revealed, once again, as a dangerous fool with no moral bearings and no strategic vision. That’s not all he is, unfortunately. He’s also the president of the United States.

NOTE:  Do we have another Iraq on our hands?


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