President Trump did more than retaliate for Bashar al-Assad’s illegal and inhumane use of nerve agents against civilians when he ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles to destroy al-Shayrat airbase in Syria. He also detonated a few shibboleths of his predecessor’s foreign policy.
First is the idea that President Obama’s 2013 deal to remove Assad’s weapons of mass destruction was a success. Susan Rice and John Kerry have lauded the agreement with Russia to supervise the extraction and destruction of Assad’s weapons stockpiles as recently as the last year. But Assad’s brazen attack on civilians in Idlib Province exposed their celebrations as premature. Trump’s swift, decisive, and limited response ended more than a half decade of vacillation toward’s Assad’s behavior. Obama diplomacy failed, but hard power may yet deter Assad from using weapons banned for almost a century.
EDITORIAL: Syria After the Airstrikes
Which brings us to the final straw man Trump lit on fire. When President Obama punted on Syria in 2013, he claimed there was no international support for limited intervention. True, David Cameron lost a vote in Parliament on the matter. But the actual powers Obama didn’t want to offend were Iran and Russia. He worried they would scuttle the Iran nuclear deal as payback. The loss of American credibility, the confidence of allies, and Syrian civilians were all factored into the cost of an Iranian promise not to test a bomb for 10 years.
Where things go from here is anyone’s guess. One of the reasons I urged Congress not to support Obama’s airstrikes in 2013 was worry not only over the president’s ambivalence but also possible escalation. Presidential ambivalence is gone, but my worry remains. I do think that this operation was about the best one could hope for: the message and objective was clear, the focus limited, the force overwhelming, support broad and deep. Assad may think twice before using these deadly agents again. Russia may be more inclined to replace him with one of his generals. But it is still worth thinking through possible responses if Assad crosses one of President Trump’s many lines again. Whatever the future holds, we do know this: President Trump’s foreign policy will look nothing like President Obama’s.
— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2017 All rights reserved
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