Trump’s Response to an Atrocity in Syria: Blame Obama

Trump’s Response to an Atrocity in Syria: Blame Obama

After Bashar al-Assad’s forces gassed at least 74 people to death in Syria on Tuesday, President Donald Trump released a short statement on the attack. More than half of it was dedicated to attacking former President Barack Obama:

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. 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. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

This is very odd. For one thing, Trump’s own response to the attack, at least in all practical terms, failed to include any new diplomatic or military measures against the Assad regime. In Tuesday’s press conference, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer seemed to dismiss the longtime US goal of seeing Assad leave power: “We would look like, to some degree, rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria.”

The statement seems to imply that President Trump would have attacked Syria after Assad’s similar chemical attack 2013, during Obama’s term in office. That ignores the fact that, at the time, Trump demanded that Obama back down from his “red line” — and stay the hell out of Syria:

And did so again:

And again:

And over and over again:

The issue here isn’t just hypocrisy.

Trump’s actual policy on Syria is a more honest expression of Obama’s, which was to effectively take no real measure to oust Assad despite continuing to insist that he needed to leave power.

Beyond failing to enforce his red line, my colleague Jennifer Williams noted that Obama had personally vetoed the advice of his entire national security team in 2012 and opted not to arm the moderate Syrian rebels when they were scoring significant battlefield wins against Assad.

Still, Obama was at least willing to use the moral authority of his office to speak out against Assad’s human rights violations and willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of his own people. The tone of Trump’s statement suggests the new president has no intention of using his bully pulpit in remotely the same way.

The paradox of America’s Syria policy

Ever since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, it has been one of the hardest foreign policy problems the United States has faced — one that deeply divided civilian policymakers, senior US military officials, and foreign policy experts from both parties.

On the one hand, failing to directly intervene with US firepower has allowed Assad to carry out massacres with impunity and to send the conflict’s death toll up to at least 470,000. On the other, there is no guarantee that a US intervention would have stopped the slaughter. And, as we saw after the Iraq War, intervention could have created a dangerous vacuum even if it succeeded in toppling Assad.

Obama personally decided that the former was the safer bet, clearly committing to non-intervention after the 2013 “red line” debacle. This is a defensible choice, albeit one with a clear trade-off: The Syrian civil war continued unabated; more people have died; and the Assad regime, with direct Russian military aid, has steadily reconquered large swaths of the country.

Yet Team Obama continued insisting that Assad needed to give up power even after it ruled out any serious effort to bring that about.

The result was a series of angry and impassioned statements from high-level Obama staffers every time there was a mass killing in Syria, statements that rang increasingly hollow as the administration went on. The Obama team wanted to show that they cared about the slaughter of Syrian civilians on an emotional level, even though they were unwilling to do much about it in concrete policy terms.

Theoretically, this was supposed to maintain the sense that the United States and the international community were committed to opposing human rights violations — to stigmatize Assad and his backers in the international realm even if intervention in Syria proper was ruled out.

When President Trump took office, it seemed like this might change. Trump, given his past statements, clearly did not care about Syria on a humanitarian level. During the campaign, he had talked about partnering with Russia to fight ISIS in the country — even though Russian airstrikes had overwhelmingly targeted rebels and Syrian civilians rather than ISIS.

So Trump’s policy did shift in one clear direction: He made the subtext of Obama’s policy, that Assad would likely stay in power, into text. Even prior to the April 4 chemical attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s status “will be decided by the Syrian people.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

The logical consequence of this new policy, though, is that they could no longer try to stigmatize Assad in the way the Obama team tried to. Once you give up the game, and admit you don’t really care if Assad stays or goes, it becomes harder to credibly condemn egregious acts like the new chemical weapons strike. Haley has tried, giving an impassioned speech at the UN on Wednesday where she asked “how many more children have to die before Russia cares?” It sounded much like the ones given by Obama’s last UN ambassador, Samantha Power, but with even less credibility.

That leads back to the rhetorical broadside at Obama. It’s an evasion of responsibility from the hard choices that define presidencies, and an abandonment of both the United States’ nominal role as a defender of human rights and the consequences of that shift.

Trump may be right that Assad isn’t going anywhere. But that doesn’t make his “blame Obama” response to a chemical attack any less troubling.

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