Last night, as news emerged of President Trump’s missile strike against a Syrian airfield, Twitter quickly began examining Trump’s old tweets from 2013, many of which opposed the possibility of action in Syria by Barack Obama:
Then there was the re-examination of Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) position on American involvement in the Syrian conflict; in 2013, Cruz said that Assad’s chemical weapons use was “not a direct threat to U.S. national security” and added that such behavior was “well outside the traditional scope of U.S. military action.” Now, Cruz is silent on Trump’s airstrikes, adding, “I look forward to our Commander-in-Chief making the case to Congress and the American people…”
In 2013, I was one of those who opposed Obama’s pre-stated “pinprick” strike:
I wrote in a column around that same time that Obama’s strategy was destined to fail, because he had no credibility to uphold – he was negotiating a deal with Syria’s sponsor state, Iran; he was undermining American allies all over the region; making the only standard for intervention use of chemical weapons ignored all of Assad’s other war atrocities.
So, what’s changed?
1. Trump Can Re-Establish American Credibility. Obama had already blown American credibility out of the water for four years by the time Assad gassed his own people. It was obvious to everyone, both Democrat and Republican, that not only did Obama lack a plan in Syria, he was looking to launch a few missiles to silence criticisms of his pathetic foreign policy. As I tweeted then, hitting a few donkeys in the rear in Syria wouldn’t do anything but make Assad look stronger and the United States weaker. The same is not true of Trump. He is a brand new president, and a man of mystery on foreign policy. A coherent plan of action following a strong, immediate response to a chemical attack can help reshape the map in different ways than Obama could in 2013.
2. The Russian-Iranian Axis Is Operative in Syria. After Obama handed over control of Syria to Russia, I wrote this:
Thanks to President Obama’s statements in August 2012 regarding a Syrian “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria, the United States was faced with three choices in Syria: depose Assad; do nothing in order to prevent al Qaeda from taking over the country (likely the best option); or, as Kerry advocated, push for an “unbelievably small” action in order to reinforce America’s credibility. The third option was the worst. But in a truly awe-inspiring display of his foreign policy genius, President Obama has found a fourth option: appeasement, complete with international weapons inspections it rejected just a week ago.
In 2013, our geopolitical interests in Syria were significantly less important than they are now, thanks to Russia’s aggressive reshaping of the Middle East. Obama handed over power to Russia in Syria, thereby helping complete an Iranian-Russian axis that spans from Iran to Lebanon, and then backed Iran through his idiotic and evil nuclear deal that made Iran a regional power again. All of that is creating a safe haven and base of strength for Iranian-backed terrorists, strengthening Vladimir Putin’s hand as an expansionist dictator, and even creating an incentive for countries who oppose Iran and Russia to covertly support ISIS. Blunting Russia’s ambitions in Syria without drawing us into war with Russia is a worthwhile goal.
3. The Map Does Not Look Like It Did In 2013. Here’s a graphic of control of Syria in 2013:
Here’s a map from March 2017:
Note the geographic divides. Note also the new clarity about the identities of some of Assad’s rivals (ISIS). This means that America’s strategic goals have changed. Now it’s no longer about deposing Assad, per se, which was always a questionable goal given his terrorist rivals; America has no interest in intervening in the middle of the Syrian Civil War. We do have interests in restricting Assad’s dominance and fighting ISIS. Russia and Assad aren’t interested in fighting ISIS – that was always a fantasy of pro-Russian isolationists. Our best policy at this point is to contain the region without serious intervention, kill as many ISIS members as possible along with friendly countries, and to deter major human rights violations, if possible, while emboldening the Kurds in the north.
That’s why Trump’s first strike matters – but it won’t matter unless he has some sort of strategy to back it up. If he doesn’t, it will be precisely the same as Obama’s proposed pinprick strike, and will have been counterproductive rather than a first blow toward restoring American interests on the world stage.