Conservatives and Republicans (not necessarily the same thing) lambasted former President Obama for drawing a red line in the sand over Syrian use of chemical weapons and then declining to back it up. We called Obama feckless and insincere. Some went further, arguing that he was fundamentally timid, even cowardly. President Trump, in his campaign, made the same point about Obama and his “red line” repeatedly, particularly in light of Obama’s acquiescence to Putin’s proposal to allow Russia to collegially remove Assad’s chemical stockpiles so America wouldn’t have to do anything to back up Obama’s red line threat.
The prior administration jumped at the chance to offload responsibility for taking action and quickly endorsed the Russian offer. Now, with the recent reported use of chemical weapons on a Syrian rebel outpost in Idlib, on those we previously called our allies in the fight against Assad, we can see the outcome of the Obama decision. It’s painfully evident that Russia snookered us (as many of us suspect Iran did thereafter in the infamous Iran nuclear deal) and that Assad not only hung onto much of his chemical weaponry, he retained the ability to deploy it against his enemies in battle. And the will to do it.
But here’s the thing. Americans probably have no more stomach for military action now than when Obama was in charge while the options before President Trump are certainly much worse than before because Russia is now firmly ensconced in Syria and an empowered Iran is backing the Assad regime while our erstwhile allies, the Syrian moderates, are reeling and weakened from the regime’s attacks on it (including the use of chemical weapons).
We are, in other words, in a much less tenable position to act than we were a few years ago when Obama was in charge. And yet if we fail to do so, President Trump will open himself up to the same charges he and others leveled at his predecessor. You can’t call someone feckless or worse if you do the same thing they did.
Yet if Trump takes drastic action to belatedly enforce a red line drawn by his predecessor and the situation sours, he will be blamed just as other presidents who have risked war have been before him. His entire presidency could unravel as voters flee from a decision many once seemed to demand but which no one but the person in charge is ever held responsible for.
Trump ran for the presidency on an inherently self-contradictory platform: Keep us out of foreign engagements but restore American strength and influence in the world. You can’t do both.
But Trump has shown himself capable of squaring circles with voters before, of saying contradictory things and having them both be believed — and of changing positions while denying he was doing that. It’s a rare talent, hard to pull off, though perhaps President Trump can do it again with this latest flare-up of trouble in the war torn Middle East.
If not, he’ll lose all credibility and the basis for his presidency as he, himself, defined it in the campaign: To correct the mistakes of the Obama administration in order to Make America Great Again. Can America be great at all if she can’t make her influence felt in critical hotspots like this around the globe — particularly where something as egregious as poison gas is used in battle as the world watches in horror?