This past week brought gruesome images of children convulsing and dying in the streets of a rebel-held province in Syria, the result of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. But this wasn’t the first time.
Almost five years ago then-President Barack Obama became concerned that the Assad regime was moving around its stockpile of chemical weapons. Obama immediately ratcheted up his dialogue to meet the threat.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line of us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said in August of 2012. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
He went on to promise that there “would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front.”
But it wasn’t true. One year later, in August of 2013, another rebel-held suburb, this time near Damascus, was attacked with Sarin gas, killing as many as 1,400 men, women and children. Once again, the Obama Administration met the attack with strong words..
“As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way,” Kerry said in his speech. “History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.”
“It matters because a lot of other countries, whose polices challenges these international norms, are watching. They are watching,” Kerry continued. “They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”
Just minutes after Kerry spoke, Obama reinforced the message, arguing that America’s credibility and security were at stake.
“It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal that that international norm doesn’t mean much,” Obama said after the attack. “And that is a danger to our national security.”
And then, somehow, Obama made the decision to stand down. We were tempted to look the other way, and we did. We warned against inaction and indifference, and we failed to act. We put our credibility on the line, and we erased it. We promised to sent a signal about international norms, and we ignored it.
So how can we be surprised that President Assad has once again resorted to using chemical weapons to murder his own people? Why would we not expect Assad to once again test the mettle of an international community that has used an immense number of words, but scarcely little force to stop his worst instincts?
But President Trump is not President Obama, a fact that was made crystal clear in his response to Assad’s provocation.
Trump moved quickly and decisively to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, ordering a strike of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Syria’s Sharat airbase, which was linked to attack. And in so doing he almost instantly remade his image into that of a commander and chief capable of making difficult choices. Jonathan Tobin writes for National Review:
[I] less than a week, Trump just proved that he is capable of reacting to unforeseen events, evaluating the options, and then making what appears to be exactly the right move at exactly the right time. The precision strike on Syria was an appropriate use of force that sent a powerful message to the butcher of Damascus and his patrons — and hopefully to other rogue nations such as North Korea — while avoiding all-out war. Just as important, it reasserted America as a force to be reckoned with and made clear that those who believe the U.S. is too war-weary and afraid of foreign entanglements to respond to the most blatant, brutal war crimes have another thing coming.
Importantly, the Trump Administration was quick to signal that this was not indicative of a broader change in their foreign policy stance. But it was also a powerful signal that it was a sea change from the permissive foreign policy of President Obama. Red lines now mean something. And countless lives could be saved because of it.