For some, protecting Barack Obama’s legacy from the unfavorable verdict of history is such an imperative that history itself is no obstacle.
That’s the unavoidable conclusion left to mnemonist readers of New York Times analyst Mark Landler’s excessively kind review of Obama’s aborted campaign strike Syrian targets in the early autumn of 2013. Both Donald Trump and Barack Obama blinked, he insists. The difference between them, Landler claims, is that Obama was hostage to events and the obligations of constitutional propriety. The present standoff with Iran is, by contrast, “a crisis Mr. Trump manufactured.”
In the effort to demonstrate how Obama’s foreign policy was “the antithesis” of Trump’s, Landler asserts that the 44th president “abruptly pulled back” from strikes on Syria only “to seek congressional approval for military action, which he believed he would need for potential later operations, perhaps including against Iran.” Landler added that Obama “watched with alarm” as the British parliament voted against an operation targeting Bashar al-Assad. Ultimately, though, the “dismay” over Obama’s failure to enforce his red line “was mitigated when Russia subsequently proposed another way to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.” This, we are told, “allowed Mr. Obama to withdraw his request for congressional backing of a military strike.”
This is, to put it mildly, a charitable interpretation of a truncated history.
As early as June of 2013, the White House confessed that Assad had used chemical weapons in violation of Obama’s 2012 ultimatum. It wasn’t until August 21, 2013, when the Assad government was implicated in a horrific gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, that Obama resolved to act.
The “red line” was crossed, and a retaliatory strike seemed imminent. But unnamed administration officials told the Los Angeles Times that the White House was unlikely to seek congressional or United Nations approval for the strike since the request would be rebuffed. But if Congress had misgivings, so, too, did the White House. One unnamed official told the Times that retaliation would be calibrated to be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” This was not the sentiment of one rogue official. Secretary of State John Kerry also eventually said that retaliatory strikes on Syria would be “unbelievably small.”
Unpersuaded by this display of American resolve, the British parliament voted down a strike proposal on August 30. Only then did Obama reverse course, postponing retaliation against Syria and committing to seek congressional approval for an attack on Syrian targets. But Congress was on recess, and the president didn’t request that its members reconvene. On September 3, House Speaker John Boehner expressed support for retaliation against Syria, though he noted that the White House had not made a convincing appeal to Congress. “We reached out to the White House and offered to help round up support, and haven’t heard back,” Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger later said. “I don’t even know who my White House liaison is.” Nevertheless, the Democrat-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on September 4 to give Obama authority to execute strikes with a full floor vote expected after Congress reconvened the following Monday. But the uncertainty and timidity emanating from the White House only intensified.
On the 9th, the White House announced that Obama would address the nation the following night. Obama spent that evening making a half-hearted case for strikes with sit-down interviews on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, and Fox News, but the White House also began to hedge its bets. Earlier that day, Kerry raised the possibility of postponing the strike if Syria completely surrendered its chemical stockpiles. The State Department insisted that Kerry was only being “rhetorical” when he entertained a farcical offer of détente brokered by Assad’s allies in Moscow, but just two hours later, Hillary Clinton—an intermediary between the White House and skeptical Democrats on the Hill—insisted that the offer was a genuine offramp on the road to war.
On September 10, Obama delivered one of the most confused and contradictory presidential speeches in living memory. “If we fail to act,” he warned, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.” He noted that the proliferation of these weapons in the hands of terrorists would inevitably lead to their use on Americans and their allies—a warning that proved prescient. And though he reiterated his desire to see Congress approve strikes on Syria, the president insisted that he did not need that approval to make Assad pay for his crimes. And yet, Obama also insisted that Russia’s diplomatic intervention in the crisis had mooted the need for any strike whatsoever. The Obama administration would spend the next several years insisting that Russia had successfully disarmed Syria—right up until the moment Assad again used sophisticated chemical weapons on civilians.
Obama closed the speech by asking Congress not to vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force against Assad’s regime. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed a vote indefinitely to the relief of his fellow Senate Democrats. But the crisis was not defused. The Syrian civil war raged, atrocities mounted, ISIS exploded over the border with Iraq, and Obama eventually ordered strikes inside Syrian territory just over a year later. A year after that, he put boots on the ground inside Syria. Obama insisted that this military intervention in a sovereign and adversarial nation was covered by previous congressional authorizations that target stateless terrorists, but that didn’t prevent coalition forces from conducting offensive operations against Assad’s forces. Accidents happen, you see.
Landler’s claim that Obama sought an AUMF against Syria to justify strikes on Iran is betrayed by the administration’s response to Iranian nuclearization in 2009, which was typified by diplomacy, not ultimatums. The same month that Obama backed off his plan to strike Iran’s allies in Syria, he reached out to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—the first bilateral contact between U.S. and Iranian leaders since 1979. That November, Kerry joined his Iranian counterpart in Geneva to settle on the terms of a precursor agreement to what would become the 2015 nuclear accords.
Unlike Assad, the Iranians “did not cross the red line” according to Landler, which he defines as Sec. Mike Pompeo’s warning to Tehran that it would face retaliation only if American service personnel were harmed. But no one needs to articulate the fact that multiple operations sabotaging commercial shipping in international waters and the direct, claimed attack on an American military asset constitute acts of war. The notion that “Iran’s actions were rooted in” Trump’s decision to partially withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accords suggests that Iran should have put an end to attacks on Americans and their allies when the U.S. was a party to that accord, but they did not.
Landler concedes only that “defenders of Mr. Trump” claim that Obama never truly wanted congressional approval for strikes on Iran but only an excuse not to act. But a judicious review of the administration’s confused messaging and lethargic legislative strategy in the run-up to a strike leave cautious observers with no other conclusion.
Landler’s attempt to rebrand Obama’s legacy on Syria as the product of strategic thinking and gamesmanship derailed only by events beyond his control is unpersuasive. Indeed, these excuses contradict Obama himself, who told The Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg that he was “very proud” of this mortifying sequence of events. By linking the canceled strike on Syria to Trump’s halted response to Iranian aggression, Landler inadvertently demonstrates how hard it is to defend Obama’s legacy.