WASHINGTON — President Obama agonized for weeks over whether to use military force in Syria following a chemical weapons attack on civilians in 2013. Secretary of State John Kerry built an international and domestic case for military strikes, only to have Obama pull back and ask for congressional authorization.
In contrast, President Trump saw disturbing images on TV. And less than three days later, American bombs were falling in Syria.
While Trump’s actions were certainly more decisive, they plunge the United States into a risky uncertainty —
In other words, Trump is confronting the same thicket of difficult foreign policy decisions the Obama administration examined for years, without coming to consensus. He’s simply gotten to that point much more quickly.
“He’s not going to telegraph his next move,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Friday. “But I think that this action was very decisive, justified, and proportional to the actions that he felt needed taken. I think it sends a very strong signal not just to Syria but throughout the world.”
Trump now faces multiple tests. One is navigating international anger from Russia, a country currently being investigated for its intervention into the American election Trump won. Another is the continued conflict in the Middle East, a region that has frustrated and entangled every president since Jimmy Carter.
For Trump, those tests are coming early in his presidency, and he will be forced to manage them with virtually no foreign policy experience, little political capital at home, and an unpredictable worldview.
Trump’s decision to authorize strikes in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in Syria won bipartisan praise. In fact, his actions were in line with what Hillary Clinton had suggested on Thursday night, and not dissimilar from what Kerry and others inside the Obama administration had argued for in 2013.
But deep questions remain over whether the military strikes mark a new and evolving posture for the Trump administration. He ran a campaign on “America First” in foreign policy, and as recently as Tuesday pledged that he was not “president of the world.”
Suddenly he’s asserting a moral argument for escalating US intervention in the Middle East, relying on outrage over the use of chemical weapons despite decades long prohibition against that as a tool of war.
“You had an international norm that’s been in place since the end of World War I egregiously violated by the regime. When that happens, the world tends to look to us,” said Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state and deputy national security advisor under President Obama. “The president did the right thing, and did it in the right way. But the real question is what comes next, and can he use this to leverage the Russians to move the regime.”
The war of words intensified on Friday between the United States and Russia. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States was “prepared to do more.” US military officials are trying to determine whether Russia had a role in the chemical weapons attack, according to CNN.
Russia called the US attack a “significant blow” to the US-Russian relationship. It also withdrew from an agreement with the United States for military cooperation in the region, which is meant to prevent accidental conflict in the air.
For a Trump administration that has struggled to gain its footing domestically and internationally — while losing almost every legislative and legal battle it has faced — greater Syrian involvement creates new challenges. Trump may now need support from the US intelligence community, which he has denounced and denigrated, to help validate and build the case for further action.
In 2013, Kerry sought to build an international coalition for military strikes against Syria. But after the United Kingdom took an unexpected vote in Parliament — which ruled out British involvement — US lawmakers voiced worries that military action in Syria could be as perilous as military action in Iraq a decade earlier.
That triggered Obama’s request for congressional authorization. The request, which seemed doomed to fail, was dropped when the United States and Russia negotiated an agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons and agree to international inspections.
The use of the nerve agent sarin this week by Syria raises questions over whether President Bashar Assad’s forces had stockpiles that were hidden from inspectors or whether they created new supplies of the deadly gas. Some former Obama administration officials have argued that the damage could have been far more significant if Assad had access to the same stockpiles he had in 2013.
“As bad and as terrible as what happened this week was, it would have been exponentially worse had we not gotten the agreement we did,” Blinken said.
Trump first learned of the gas attack on Tuesday at about 10:30 a.m., during his daily intelligence briefing, according to a timeline outlined by Spicer. At that time, he asked his team to provide a range of options.
By Thursday afternoon, during a meeting in a secure room in Palm Beach, Fla., he gave the go- ahead to move forward with military strikes. Missiles were launched into Syria as he was having dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump is now looking at a battlefield that is more complex than the one that the Obama administration saw.
“Much can be debated about who was right and who was wrong, who was naive and who was prescient,” said David Wade, a longtime Kerry aide who was chief of staff at the State Department during the chemical weapons attack in 2013. “But the passage of time only makes Syria options worse and decisions harder.”
While the targets — airfields and top regime targets — are likely the same, four years ago Russians were not flying over Syria and Russian personnel weren’t on the ground. There is the potential for miscommunication and an unwanted escalation that could come.
The situation inside Syria has also changed dramatically, making a political solution even more unlikely. The rebels who were once gaining ground have now lost it.
Still, a series of strikes against Assad could make clear that the United States won’t tolerate his use of chemical weapons. It could also increase pressure on Russians and Iranians, giving the United States an upper hand in seeking a diplomatic solution.
“Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was the State Department’s director of policy planning in the first two years of the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter.
With calls rising for the White House to seek congressional approval once again, some former State Department officials warn against such action, viewing that as one of the pitfalls they fell into.
“The administration can’t count on congressional support, and they shouldn’t contemplate it unless they’re considering boots on the ground,” Wade said. “Congress today doesn’t have the ability to act quickly on an issue like what we’ve witnessed in Idlib.”
“If Trump is going to pursue airstrikes against Assad, he should be prepared to do so — as President Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo, and as President Obama did against ISIS — without authorization from Congress.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.