Did Obama’s statements after Iraqi suicide bombings in 2009 routinely mention “Bush’s failed intervention” or whatever? I can’t remember, but if they did, I’m sure he got an earful for it from conservatives for playing domestic politics with foreign policy problems that were supposed to be his responsibility now.
Two levels of confusion here:
“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people including women and children is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” President Donald Trump said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “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 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Trump’s statement continued. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act.”
I don’t know what Trump means when he says today’s attack in Idlib can’t be ignored. As of five days ago, his own administration was prepared to ignore Assad’s previous WMD attacks by reversing current U.S. policy that Assad must leave power. “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out,” said Nikki Haley, which jibes with Trump’s halting outreach to Assad’s friends in Moscow and his focus on liquidating ISIS as a top foreign-policy priority. The enemy of our enemies in Raqqa is … not quite our “friend,” exactly, but a guy whose continued rule we’re prepared to tolerate if it makes the job of breaking up the caliphate easier. (Which is a big if, given Assad’s interest in having ISIS around as a threat as a way to keep western nations like the U.S. off his back.) Has the attack in Idlib changed Trump’s calculation about leaving Assad in power or is he sticking with his new policy? He conveniently doesn’t say.
Which brings us to the other layer of confusion. Wasn’t Trump … opposed to intervening in Syria, even after Obama declared his infamous “red line” against WMD use in 2012? These old tweets are making the rounds today…
…but those were no one-off statements. Enlarge the image in this tweet and pore through his many, many utterances about Syria. Why is he attacking Obama today for doing nothing to enforce his red line when Trump didn’t want it enforced either?
This is how Trump responded to Assad's chemical attack in 2013. Now that Spicer blamed today's attack on Assad, what will Trump say and do? pic.twitter.com/m3DQufifLF
— Jason Stern (@TheJasonStern) April 4, 2017
This is at least the third time Trump’s memory about his views of a major U.S. adventure in the Middle East has been faulty. He was against the Iraq war from the beginning, he declared during the campaign — except he wasn’t. He was also supposedly against the Libya intervention from the beginning — but he wasn’t. Now he’s attacking Obama for non-intervention that led to a horrendous gas attack today — after preaching non-intervention (prudently, I think) himself. In due time, he’ll end up on every side of every major war the U.S. has fought in or not fought in since World War II. If he isn’t already.
Enough domestic politics, though. If you haven’t read an account of the Idlib attack itself today, catch up now with the Times:
Witnesses to the attack said it began just after sunrise. Numerous photographs and graphic videos posted online by activists and residents showed children and older adults gasping and struggling to breathe, or lying motionless in the mud as rescue workers ripped off victims’ clothes and hosed them down. The bodies of least 10 children lay lined up on the ground or under a quilt.
A few hours later, according to several witnesses, another airstrike hit one of the clinics treating victims, who had been farmed out to smaller hospitals and maternity wards because the area’s largest hospital had been severely damaged by an airstrike two days earlier…
While chlorine gas attacks have become almost routine in northern Syria, this one was different, medical workers and witnesses said. Chlorine attacks usually kill just a few people, often those trapped in an enclosed space, and the gas dissipates quickly.
This time, people collapsed outdoors, and in much larger numbers. The symptoms were also different: They included the pinpoint pupils of victims that characterize nerve agents and other banned toxins. One doctor posted a video of a patient’s eye, showing the pupil reduced to a dot. Several people were sickened simply by coming into contact with the victims.
Estimates are at least 83 dead, including 25 children, and 250 wounded. There are plenty of photos and clips online of the aftermath; if you want a 60-second glimpse, this will give you a sense. The detail about “pinpoint pupils” caught my eye as that was also a symptom in a December 2012 chemical attack in Homs attributed to Assad. The suspected culprit in that case was a nerve agent known as “Agent 15.” But Agent 15, although more lethal than chlorine, isn’t particularly lethal; it was designed to be incapacitating, and some reports of the Homs death toll listed the number as low as seven. What sort of agent do you need to kill 80+ people? One obvious possibility: Sarin, which, as a nerve agent, also produces pinpoint pupils, breathing trouble, and so on in victims. And Assad’s been accused of using that before. In fact, it was a suspected sarin attack in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013 (which, by some estimates, killed nearly 1,800 people) that brought Obama to the brink of bombing Assad, with Trump hollering all the way on Twitter for him to stay out.
In lieu of an exit question, here’s Rex Tillerson’s statement on today’s attack, which blames Iran and Russia for today’s attack, not Obama.
Update: I’m embarrassed to say I forgot all about this.
The reason Obama didn’t end up bombing Assad after the Damascus was because Vladimir Putin swooped in with a disarmament deal for the U.S. If Assad gave up his chemical weapons voluntarily, he asked, under the watchful eyes of inspectors, would America agree to refrain from attacking? Eager for a way out of an unpopular looming intervention, Obama accepted — with critics warning that of course Assad wouldn’t really disarm. And now here we are.