|Trump closed the barn door on dapper dictator Bashar al-Assad after|
his chemical attack crushed his opposition.
He was not alone. UN ambassador Nikki Haley lowered her reputation for accurate tough talk by declaring about the airstrike that “America was locked and loaded” (quoting Trump) and then added this:
“When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line.”
This red line rhetoric is meant to be a slap at Obama rather than at the Republican Congress that refused to back up his stance on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, first taken six years ago.
It has become a Republican centerpiece of fake news, suggesting that a weak Obama failed where a strong Trump is succeeding, building up the Tin Man to hide his Cowardly Lion bluster.
Now there are legitimate arguments that can be made about Obama’s approach to foreign policy. His was more a case by case solution rather than a hawk or dove overview, but he contemplated intervention at a time when US action in Syria could have made a difference – when there was a real civil war and Assad’s authoritarian ruthlessness was in jeopardy.
Things might have been different if the US stepped in then, but the US was clearly sick of such Mideast conflicts and questioned whether our government should insert us in a civil war regardless of the crimes against humanity that Assad was engaging in.
We drew a mental line, not a red one, between the brutality of conventional weapons and the use of poison gas. The second we wanted to act on. The first not so much, though it was killing more innocents. (View online the documentary that should have won the Oscar: “Last Men in Aleppo.”)
Thus in 2013, after Obama had drawn a red line around the further use of chemical weapons, Congress balked at giving him military authority to enforce it. (Trump’s current authority is a paper-thin resolution previously used to justify the Iraqi War.) So a frustrated Obama maneuvered and accepted Russia’s promise to supervise removal of all of Assad’s chemical weapons, accomplishing by diplomacy what he had been denied militarily.
Today we know the Russians misled UN inspectors and did a lousy job. But we forget the deal did hold up for Obama’s remaining years. Once Trump came in 2017, Syria reverted to multiple uses of chemical weapons, not stopped by an air strike a year ago and maybe this time not stopped by a military one-off but by the facts on the ground.
In the intervening time Assad’s forces have dominated the opposition and, with Iran and Russia support, firmed up Assad’s dictatorship. Why risk universal condemnation over chemicals when ruthlessness with conventional weapons can bring the same result – and aren’t being protested by the US government? Besides, Assad's recent use of gas was specifically to drive out the last active remnants of the resistance, crushing their will by devastating their children. That Mission Accomplished may have been his.
Despite Trump’s full court press in the media, despite pretense that his America is tougher than the old America, TV viewers had better get used to turning away from continuing images of brutality rained on Syrian families and cities – and certainly turn away from any pretense we are doing anything concrete about it.
We have become good at turning away and at accepting false narratives.