An interesting tweet from a few years ago flagged last night by Rand Paul, who commented, “This remains true today as it was in 2013. Both parts.”
Had Trump’s position changed a year later? Nope, not according to this clip flagged by Andrew Kaczynski:
And yet, in 2017, here we are:
President Donald Trump has told some members of Congress that he is considering military action in Syria in retaliation for this week’s chemical attack, and recognizes the seriousness of the situation, a source familiar with the calls tells CNN.
The source said the President had not firmly decided to go ahead with it but said he was discussing possible actions with Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Trump is relying on the judgment of Mattis, according to the source.
Trump can kinda sorta plausibly reverse himself on the need to strike Assad, but how does he reverse himself on the need to ask Congress for permission? And if he does ask, does he have 60 votes in the Senate for an AUMF to attack Syria? He might get some Democratic support on punishing Assad for using WMDs but he’s sure to lose Paul’s vote on the Republican side and possibly a few others. McConnell and his caucus will be under heavy pressure not to let a Republican president be humiliated by having his own party thwart him on military force, and Democrats will be under equally heavy pressure to deny McConnell votes and make that humiliation happen. Who wins?
The detail about Trump relying on Mattis, by the way, dovetails with his approach to counterterrorism raids and drone strikes. From the beginning the White House has hoped to outsource more operational decisions to the military in targeting jihadis, whether on the ground or from the air. The tactical virtue of that is that it lets the military move more quickly when an opportunity presents itself, without having to go up a long bureaucratic chain for approval. The political virtue is that Trump, as a natsec newbie, gets to point to Mattis’s expertise if/when he’s criticized for a decision that ends up going badly. (The political pitfall is that, with the military operating more autonomously, more life and death decisions that Trump will have to answer for will end up out of his hands.) I wonder, in fact, if that’s part of the reason why Trump took such a shine to generals like Mattis and John Kelly in the transition process and later to H.R. McMaster in choosing a new NSA. It’d be very easy for his political enemies to accuse him of incompetence and amateurishness for poor natsec choices if he was surrounded by a coterie of political appointees. Surrounded by respected generals, it’s harder. Imagine Mattis’s predicament now, though, essentially forced to make the call as to whether the U.S. should punish Assad for using WMD and knowing that, if things spiral from there, he’ll be blamed for having set the policy.
A few questions from Sean Davis for Trump, Mattis, and the Pentagon as they weigh what to do:
1) What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?…
6) What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?…
9) What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?…
11) Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?
Good arguments all for following the Trump 2013 approach instead of the Trump 2017 model. One quibble, though: A quirk of this WMD/red line kabuki is that it doesn’t actually involve deposing Assad, as weird as that may seem. Normally when you target a foreign leader with military power, the endgame is removing him. The Obama White House, however, swore in 2013 when they were considering airstrikes that their bombing campaign would be “unbelievably small”; Trump’s likewise would almost certainly be designed to punish Assad without punishing him so much that he topples over and suddenly the world has to manage a nightmarish power vacuum in Damascus. The point of a bombing campaign would be to enforce the taboo against using WMD without somehow inadvertently triggering the sort of secondary effects Davis imagines. For instance, John McCain and Lindsey Graham naturally want much more than “unbelievably small” strikes, calling for an international coalition to ground Assad’s air force in order to prevent future chemical attacks from the air. Would Russia stand by and let that happen. The question for Trump and Mattis, if they do take military action, is whether can they avoid retaliation from Assad — or Putin — that might force the U.S. to escalate further. And if they can’t, what’s left of Trump’s “red line” tough talk yesterday?