If President Donald Trump wanted to confuse his opponents and dilute any serious criticisms of his approach to the situation in Syria, he could have done no better than to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the crisis. In a statement condemning the slaughter of civilians in what appears to be the worst regime-ordered chemical attack since 2013, the president observed that Obama had drawn a “red line” over this same sort of thing but “did nothing.” Instantly, partisan battle lines were etched into the sand. The New York Times editorial board was one of many liberal outlets that felt compelled to defend Barack Obama’s Syria policy. In the process, they water down their criticisms of Trump’s approach to the nightmare in the Levant. That serves Donald Trump’s interests just fine.
The occasion of an attack using weapons of mass destruction in Syria that killed at least 70—including ten children—and injured over 400 is an inopportune moment for a president to pass the buck to his predecessor. Trump’s statement represented a crass attempt at obfuscation, and an abdication of an American president’s responsibility to eschew prevarications. As a political tactic, however, Trump’s maneuver succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings.
President Barack Obama does deserve blame for the crisis in Syria. His administration has earned censure for compounding the disaster in a craven effort to avoid intervention into that conflict at almost all costs. Of course, Donald Trump is similarly committed to avoiding engagement in the Syrian civil war. By triggering the protective instincts of Obama’s loyal progeny, Trump has deflected criticism from his disengagement and forced the left to defend Obama’s.
The New York Times editorial board was in bountiful company when they jumped at the president’s bait. They were right to note that the world risks becoming inured to the images of children frothing at the mouth, writhing in agony as the struggle to breathe through chemically-scarred lungs. This attack was, however, of an order of magnitude greater than previous attacks. The Times editorial board observed that this makes no tactical sense, considering that the Assad regime has all but won the Civil War. They and their Russian and Iranian allies have, by and large, neutralized pro-Western rebels and secured the concession that the Trump administration no longer believes Assad’s ouster is a prerequisite for peace. The Times was on secure ground when it called the timing of this attack, coming less than a week after Assad’s survival was virtually assured by Washington, conspicuous.
The piece could have stopped there. The Times also might have gone on to note that Trump’s passing of the buck back fails to meet the measure of an American president. If they were feeling especially saucy, the opinion-page editors might have observed that Trump actually advised Barack Obama to do precisely what he is today criticizing: ignore the “red line” for action against the Assad regime. But they didn’t. Instead, the New York Times’ editorial board felt obliged to defend Obama’s record in Syria, muddying their argument and rendering it dismissible in the process.
The Times noted that Trump’s explicit assertion that Assad’s ouster is no longer an American priority is only the verbalization of an implicit Obama-era policy. The editorial further observed, oddly, that Obama shifted toward that view “only after repeated efforts to work with Russia on a political solution.” Indeed, it is not despite but because of those efforts that Assad is today so entrenched. “Mr. Trump ignored the fact that instead of taking military action, which Congress mostly opposed, Mr. Obama worked on with Russia on a deal under which Mr. Assad agreed to dismantle his chemical munitions.” Remember, this is Barack Obama’s defense.
Barack Obama’s primetime address to the nation on the night of September 10, 2013, may be remembered as the most pivotal moment of his presidency. It was the night in which he made a prosecutorial, compelling case for military action against Assad, then announced that he had no intention of doing anything about it. Obama instead declared that both Congress and Russia would rescue him from having to deliver on his threats.
Obama put the matter to Congress at a moment of maximum weakness. Having just lost a vote in the House of Commons in support of what John Kerry pitched as an “unbelievably small” retaliatory attack on Assad, congressional Republicans were unimpressed. Democrats, too, found the prospect of a perfunctory attack on Syria a distraction. “When we’re working Syria, we’re not working on something else,” said Senator Ben Cardin. In the end, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for Obama’s request, but then Majority Leader Harry Reid never put it to a vote.
While the politics played out in Washington, Barack Obama invited Russia to intervene diplomatically on behalf of its client in Damascus. Even as chemical attacks on civilian populations became a regular feature of the Syrian civil war, the last administration timidly declared Syria to be “100 percent” chemical weapons-free (they simply determined chlorine gas wasn’t a chemical weapon). As recently as January of this year, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice asserted that the Obama administration got “the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapon stockpile.” This assertion was laughable at the time. Now that the U.S. government and the WHO believe the Assad regime is again using nerve agents, it’s no longer so funny.
Barack Obama never sought to resolve the Syrian crisis; he wanted to avoid it. When it became abundantly clear that he could not, he abandoned his once lofty constitutional ideals, put aside his pursuit of congressional consent to use force in Syria, and simply ordered the introduction of ground, air, and covert assets into that theater. By then, however, Russia and its Iranian allies had become so militarily enmeshed in that conflict that containing it meant risking a confrontation with a great power. The earliest days of Russian intervention in the Syrian war featured NATO and Russian military assets fighting in such risky proximity that they occasionally shot at one another. It was the closest the Atlantic Alliance has come to war with Russia in decades.
In his effort to avoid entanglement in the Syria crisis, Barack Obama rendered it impossible to resolve to America’s satisfaction. For this, he deserves all the censure we can muster. In offering his own denunciation, President Trump can be criticized on style but not substance. Those on the left who acted scandalized by Trump’s effrontery have, in fact, done precisely what he wanted Americans to do: re-litigate Obama’s record on Syria rather than his own. Rather than allow themselves to be manipulated by the White House, Obama’s defenders and the American people would be better served by acknowledging the former president’s failures and demanding to know how Trump will correct for them.