Words matter when it comes to foreign policy.
Since President Trump’s inauguration, Trump has taken to Twitter to express his viewpoints on everything ranging from the ratings for The Celebrity Apprentice to the electoral prospects of the Freedom Caucus. Most of it could safely be ignored, including his wiretapping tweets – in fact, Trump would be far better off if the American people did ignore him on Twitter.
But the same doesn’t hold true of foreign policy. When it comes to foreign policy, which is the near-exclusive preserve of presidential power, words matter. As I wrote on March 17:
It’s one thing to state that American citizens ought to ignore the president until he actually does something – but foreign actors make decisions on a regular basis on the basis of relationships and forecasts. Words matter. In 1990, U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie reportedly told Saddam Hussein that the U.S. wouldn’t intervene if Hussein moved on Kuwait; foreign policy analysts have theorized that these words helped cement Hussein’s decision to invade. Obviously, Ronald Reagan’s words mattered a great deal in dealing with the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton’s law enforcement approach to terrorism convinced Osama Bin Laden that the United States was a paper tiger. And Barack Obama’s continued pressure and rhetoric on Israel allegedly helped convince the Jewish state that intelligence coordination between the two countries had to be curtailed.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced that it had shifted the stated American policy on Syria. No longer would the United States seek the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad – now we would recognize his presence as a permanent reality. “With respect to Assad,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated, “there is a political reality that we have to accept.” At the same time, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed the Turks that Assad would remain. In practice, this wasn’t much different than the de facto policy of the Obama administration, which lied about setting red lines with regard to Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction, then immediately backed off and handed regional leadership to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
But the words mattered – particularly for a new administration from a different party. When Trump took office, it wasn’t clear just how much he’d be willing to stand up to Assad. The week before his inauguration, Trump stated that Russian action in Syria was “a very bad thing, we had a chance to do something when we had the line in the sand and…nothing happened. That was the only time. And now, it’s sort of very late…a terrible situation.”
But now Trump has taken the reverse position. By stating openly that he’d leave Assad in place, Trump signaled to Assad that he would in fact do nothing to him no matter what he did. And after a long election cycle in which Trump repeatedly neglected to condemn Russian atrocities in Syria, instead favoring the formulation that the United States also commits atrocities, it’s clear that Trump has no interest in putting pressure on the Kremlin.
Which means that it’s no surprise that Assad determined to gas his own people. Again. According to multiple media reports, Assad may have dropped sarin gas on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-controlled area. Social media posts show dead children, with Dr. Firas Jundi claiming at least 60 people killed.
This is only Assad’s most recent gas attack, if the reports are correct. In December, Assad allegedly used sarin in Hama, killing over 90.
How did the White House respond? By blaming Obama. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” said Spicer. This is true, so far as it goes. But Trump is the president now, not Obama. When Spicer says that the chemical attack “cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” he ought to be talking to his boss.
Here’s the sad truth: either America will have to stand up to Russia and Assad by taking action to end this sort of activity or we’ll have to live with seeing pictures of gassed children on our television screens. There is no third option. That does not mean we have to get involved in a full-scale civil war in Syria, but it does mean establishing no-fly zones, using our military on the ground in Syria already to bolster rebel areas, and pressing for a stalemate – with the further threat of ousting Assad himself.
But Trump just blew that threat sky-high. It’s no longer credible to threaten Assad. Assad knows it. Putin knows it. Trump knows it. And with free Russian and Assad hands in Syria, things are going to get far uglier now than they were even under Obama. But perhaps that’s the calculation the Trump administration has made: better to sit on the sidelines and tut-tut at Obama than to own the fact that the Trump Syrian policy looks a good deal like the Obama policy, just more blatant.