The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Politicians who were wrong on the ‘red line’ should just admit it

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Some Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), opposed use of force to defend the red line against Bashar al-Assad in 2013; now they support President Trump. Many of these Republicans insist, wrongly, that President Barack Obama had more-narrow objectives than Trump did. (My colleague Josh Rogin points out that this is categorically false.) They argue that Obama had no “day-after plan”; funny, neither does Trump.

Meanwhile, some liberal Democrats, including those who cheered Obama’s decision to back away from the red line, incorrectly recall that Obama really wanted to act but Congress wouldn’t let him. This is wrong. “All week, White House officials had publicly built the case that [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad had committed a crime against humanity. [John] Kerry’s speech would mark the culmination of this campaign,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about the decision. “But the president had grown queasy. In the days after the gassing of Ghouta, Obama would later tell me, he found himself recoiling from the idea of an attack unsanctioned by international law or by Congress.” Indeed, Obama has bragged about his decision to reverse course, saying “I’m very proud of this moment.”

Lawmakers of both political parties react to President Trump’s announcement of U.S. airstrikes on an airfield in Syria. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Republicans who opposed Obama but support Trump should be honest. They should acknowledge they badly misread the situation (just as Obama did) and learned from the catastrophe that followed (unlike Obama, they get points for admitting error and changing their mind). If not, they should be candid that they back a GOP president, even one as fickle and untrustworthy as Trump, but not a Democratic one.

Democrats who would like to shift blame to Congress for Obama’s egregious decision to flip on the red line should forgo intellectual dishonesty. They should look to fellow Democrats, including Nicholas Burns, Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), who have the integrity to argue that we should have enforced the red line (and now support Trump’s action) but still demand a coherent Syria policy. To their credit, a number of Democrats have been withering in their critique of Obama:

For some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naïveté, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line,” Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then as secretary of defense in Obama’s first term, told me recently, “then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.” Right after Obama’s reversal, Hillary Clinton said privately, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”

“Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than ‘punished’ as originally planned.” Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, wrote for The Atlantic at the time. “He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return.”

Even commentators who have been broadly sympathetic to Obama’s policies saw this episode as calamitous. Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently that Obama’s handling of this crisis—“first casually announcing a major commitment, then dithering about living up to it, then frantically tossing the ball to Congress for a decision—was a case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation.”

There is no sin in admitting error, even one as egregious as Obama’s failure to enforce the red line. What is unacceptable is 1) Republicans pretending that they had better reasons then to oppose a military strike than they do now, and 2) Democrats pretending that the decision to erase the red line was not made by Obama at all. What is admirable are the Republicans and Democrats who recognized the moral and strategic imperative of acting in 2013 and today, without concern for the party affiliation of the president.