Fareed Zakaria: Two Obama officials told me he would have ordered a Syria strike just like the one Trump ordered
The key bit below comes at around 2:40. True or false?
“White House speech writers must have written the lines that Barack Obama spoke… announcing the U.N. deal in which the Syrian regime agreed to give up its chemical weapons stockpile… In other words, the Trump administration watched a violation of Obama’s 2013 deal, and enforced it in precisely the manner that Obama had implied, which is why virtually every major Obama foreign policy official, from Hillary Clinton to Thomas Donilon to Leon Panetta to David Petraeus, has supported thhe Trump administration’s action.”
“Two senior Obama officials I spoke with told me that were Barack Obama still president, he would have likely ordered a strike that was similar if not identical in scope. Presumably, those former speechwriters would then have used different words to describe the same strikes,” Zakaria quipped.
Interesting hypothetical. Obama rattled his saber after a much bigger chemical attack in 2013, eased off when he realized the public was broadly against airstrikes, then accepted an eleventh-hour disarmament deal from Putin that let him wriggle out of his “red line” predicament. How would O have reacted to horrible proof in Idlib two weeks ago that that deal was a sham? At some point, in theory, even Obama would have had to slap Assad in order to preserve whatever shreds remained of American credibility on WMD deterrence. But after he backed down in 2013, at a moment when intervention in Syria didn’t pose any risk of conflict with Russia and had a greater chance of affecting the course of the war, what compelling reason is there to believe he would have acted militarily now? Zakaria’s Obama sources may be doing little more than wishcasting, irked that their guy was so passive on Syria for so many years and eager to claim with 20/20 hindsight that he would have been just as aggressive as Trump under the circumstances.
Another interesting hypothetical. How would the right have reacted to Obama, or President Hillary, ordering precisely the same strike that Trump did? Many, I think, would have been consistent, reacting the same way they did to Trump’s attack — hardcore interventionists in the McCain/Graham mold would have cheered, alt-righters would have booed. But the vast, mushy middle of the GOP probably would have been led by their partisan instincts, smacking Obama either for intervening in the first place or, more likely, for ordering a strike that amounted to little more than a wrist slap:
Let’s start with the the scale of the air raid itself. In the annals of pinprick strikes, Trump’s Tomahawk attack now stands as the pinprickiest…
[C]ould a strike that limited really have any such an effect? This attack possibly even eroded the chemical weapons taboo by convincing any would-be transgressors that the worst they could expect would be the loss of a small number of inessential aircraft after an advance warning—in other words, a slap on the wrist. The clearest signal of all would have required a serious punitive attack on the regime itself, a step whose legality would be open to question and that would risk a dangerous escalation with Russia…
The fact that Trump chose the least aggressive option available suggests that the principal audience for the strikes was not in Damascus or Moscow, but in the United States. In this reading, the missile strike was an ideal means for the commander in chief to avoid the opprobrium that his predecessor experienced for opting not to strike in 2013 after Assad’s first chemical weapons attack and instead work with Russia to remove Syrian chemical weapons stocks. Given Trump’s compulsive need for adulation and his desire to criticize former President Barack Obama and contrast himself with the 44th president, the strike may have been a foregone conclusion, whatever Trump had said earlier about staying out of Syria.
It’s not hard to imagine a variation of that analysis being applied to a hypothetical Obama strike. Attacking one airfield, and failing to even knock out of commission, would have been flagged as proof of Obama’s wimpiness and essential disinterest in the Syria war, doing the bare minimum in “red line” enforcement in order to save face. There were, it seems, sound tactical reasons for not bombing the runways themselves (since the craters could easily be filled in within a day or two, it would have been a waste of munitions), but conservatives would have laughed at O for that for days, treating it as a metaphor for his sustained inability to do what’s needed to actually halt Assad’s atrocities. Still, there’s a key difference between Obama ordering this airstrike and Trump ordering it. Obama had already proved over the course of his second term that he was willing to do only so much to punish Assad; even if he had greenlit the same strike Trump did, Assad would have known that O’s long reluctance to get more deeply involved in Syria meant that he was unlikely to face further reprisals. There’s no similar assurance with Trump, who greenlit this strike within the first hundred days of his presidency, suggesting that there may indeed be more to come if the regime uses chemical weapons again. The whole point was to send the message that there’s a new sheriff in town, which makes the comments by those Obama officials to Zakaria even more ironic. Obama had long ago sent his own “message” to Assad through his passivity. One airstrike wouldn’t have undone that.
By the way, the inspiration for this segment is Zakaria feeling annoyed that doves on the left criticized him last week for praising Trump’s intervention. I’ve criticized Trump endlessly, he complains. Why can’t I praise him when he does well? That’s a fair grievance, but I don’t think the left’s problem with him was that he praised Trump. It was how he praised him, saying a day after the Syria attack that “Trump became president of the United States last night.” To a dove, it’s perverse to suggest that one of the most presidential things one can do is fire off a few tomahawks. And to a liberal dove who hates Trump and will never view him as illegitimate, it’s a mortal sin to suggest that anything he might do in office, especially in the arena of war, is legitimizing.