Am I right that O’s non-strategy towards Syria is the only policy of his that veterans of his administration have consistently criticized since he left office? I can’t think of another. Ask an Obamaite whether they prefer his or Trump’s approach to a particular issue and they’ll blurt out “Obama!” before you’ve even finished your sentence — with one exception. When Trump bombed Assad after last year’s WMD attack, a former Obama senior official (Kerry, maybe?) chirped to Politico that “Our administration never would have gotten this done in 48 hours. It’s a complete indictment of Obama.” Anne-Marie Slaughter praised Trump for his action, as did other unnamed foreign-policy officials on background. Hopenchange alumni were so embarrassed by it that they took to leaking how massive Obama’s plan to attack Assad in 2013 was, before he stuffed it in a desk drawer and backed down. Others were pitifully reduced to chattering that Obama would have bombed Assad last year if he were still president like Trump did … despite his conspicuous refusal to do so four years earlier.
Kerry’s been running away from Obama’s Syria policy for years, telling diplomats in the fall of 2016 that he argued for using force against Assad three years earlier. Presumably that’s true, but even if it isn’t, what else would you expect him to say? So harrowing has the apocalypse in Syria been, and so long has it dragged on, that anyone who works in foreign affairs must look at it today and think “We should have done something differently” even if it’s not clear what good that something might have done. If you’re going to play that game, though, naturally the first thing that’ll spring to mind is Obama backing away from the red line. Kerry acknowledged it yesterday on “Face the Nation”:
JOHN KERRY: I was surprised. I thought we were going to go forward. I thought that weekend was the weekend. I expected the phone call to be telling me that he had decided we were striking that night or whatever was going to happen, and it wasn’t. My job was to then affect the President’s policy. And I did the best I could in going to Congress and arguing the case. But I do write that we paid a price for that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-Hm.
JOHN KERRY: There’s no question about that. We paid a price. And– and all the explanations and everything else doesn’t change the perception. And perceptions sometimes are very telling in diplomacy and politics.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You– you paid a price. You mean, the red line moment has come to for many critics of President Obama–
JOHN KERRY: It’s–
MARGARET BRENNAN: –define his foreign policy and define it as weak, as not backing up a threat.
JOHN KERRY: For many people that’s exactly what I ran into.
The “red line” retreat was a humiliating moment for U.S. power but I’ve never understood how an alternate course wouldn’t have ended in retreat anyway. If O had hit Assad, Assad almost certainly would have defied him afterward by using chemical weapons again. That’s what he did to Trump, after all, after the first U.S. strike on him in April 2017. What would Obama have done then? Another token bombing run, a la Trump? A small contingent of troops? The insuperable obstacle for every president on Syria is that Americans don’t understand what national interest is at stake and have had their fill of Middle East adventures over the past 20 years. There’s always support at the beginning of hostilities for punching a bully in the eye, but if the bully’s going to ignore you and keep doing what he does, you’re forced to either keep punching or to acquiesce and walk away. Trump was willing to throw a couple of jabs, Obama was willing to throw none, but neither one was going to commit to a sustained fight for purely humanitarian reasons. And so the question: If Obama had hit Assad in 2013 and then ended up retreating after Assad shook it off and kept gassing people, wouldn’t we have paid a price in lost credibility anyway? What price in terms of American lives lost might we have paid if Obama had committed to a McCain/Graham-style strategy of perpetual escalation to preserve American prestige?
It feels strange to lecture John Kerry on the risk of an endless military build-up in the name of winning a war that wasn’t much in America’s interest to fight in the first place, but here we are.
Margaret Brennan does ask him, more than once, how it is that Assad was left in a position to gas people after Kerry had boasted repeatedly as Secretary of State that 100 percent of his chemical weapons had been removed under pressure from Team Obama. He tells her at the end that it’s because Assad has “had an opportunity to reconstitute and gain a foothold and there’s been no further inspection and nothing else going on.” But that’s a half-truth: Although inspectors did remove a lot of Assad’s WMD stock in 2013-14, U.S. experts never believed they removed everything he had. “We always knew we had not gotten everything, that the Syrians had not been fully forthcoming in their declaration,” said former deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the NYT last year. The former head of Syria’s weapons program claimed around the same time that Assad had hundreds of tons of sarin that he’d never declared to inspectors. A few months ago, Nikki Haley told the UN that American experts Assad had used banned chemical weapons no fewer than 50 times during the war and possibly as many as 200. That didn’t all happen in the few years that Obama’s been out of office. Kerry can console himself with the fact that O’s deal with Russia to remove Assad’s WMD made the situation better by taking some chemical munitions off the battlefield, but it just wasn’t the complete, shining success that he and Obama cracked it up to be while they were in office.