As he is wont to do regarding President Trump, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) got carried away, becoming downright giddy in extolling the president’s Syria strikes. The strikes, he insisted, restored “our credibility.” That’s downright silly, for while something is better than nothing — President Barack Obama’s policy — a single show of force does not make a policy. Credibility is restored with persistent, consistent action over a period of time. If Cotton thinks Trump is not showing a “reluctance to use force,” he hasn’t been listening to the secretary of state, who insists we aren’t doing anything but sending a warning about use of chemical weapons. Cotton’s confidence in Trump, again, is misplaced. Sure enough, on Sunday the cacophony of administration voices affirmed that no one, including the president, has any idea of what comes next.
If you believe — as Obama’s Republican and Democratic critics (not to mention diplomats, experts, regional powers and those with common sense) — that there can be no victory over the Islamic State so long as the man who butchered Sunni Syrians remains in power, then you probably liked what Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had to say on Sunday on “Meet the Press”: “I mean, in no way do we look at peace happening in that area with Iranian influence. In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad. In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.” The conversation continued:
CHUCK TODD: And final question, what is now the priority in Syria: Assad’s removal or defeating ISIS? Before, the emphasis was on defeating ISIS. Then, we’ll deal with Assad. Has that changed?
HALEY: Well, I think what you have to understand is we can have multiple priorities. So you know, of course, it’s to defeat ISIS. I mean, that, we’ve got to do that for peace and stability in the area. It’s also to get out the Iranian influence, which we think is causing so much friction and worse issues in the area. And then we’ve got to go and make sure that we actually see a leader that will protect his people. And clearly, Assad is not that person.
Haley reiterated that view on CNN’s “State of the Union“: “So, there’s multiple priorities. It’s — getting Assad out is not the only priority. And so what we’re trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. Secondly, we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said much the same thing. On “Face the Nation,” he said: “Bashar al-Assad, by polarizing the Syrian people, [has] also given rise to ISIS and al-Qaeda. So they are both connected. And I believe that the United States of America can address both at the same time. We can walk and chew gum.” He stressed: “Just a one-time deal is not going to be productive, and saying we are only going after chemical weapons areas ignores the enormity of the problem. A very small percentage of the people who have been slaughtered in Syria have been slaughtered by chemical weapons.” Later, on the same show, former CIA acting director Mike Morell agreed: “Sen. McCain is exactly right. These are linked. You cannot ultimately defeat ISIS without getting rid of Assad. He has no credibility with the largest percentage of his population, which are the Sunnis. He will never get it back. He will never get their … support back. And as long as that’s the case, as long as he’s there, that will feed extremists, whether it’s — whether it’s this ISIS or whether it’s ISIS 2.0 down the road, Assad has to go. They are connected.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.), among other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, has echoed this view. Speaking on “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voiced optimism that Trump is stumbling toward a reasonable policy: “[Trump] abandoned a position that was not working, which is leaving Assad alone. Obama said he has to go in name only. This president’s setting in motion actual strategy to get rid of Assad. To the American people, the war never ends with Assad. He’s a recruiting gold mine for ISIL and al-Qaeda. He will not be accepted by the region … nor his own people.”
Maybe you prefer the Obama foreign policy of indifference and passivity? Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is your man. He warns that there is no change in policy and that defeating the Islamic State is our goal, with ridding the country of Assad just an afterthought. “I think our strategy in Syria, as you know, our priority is first the defeat of ISIS, remove them from access to the caliphate because that’s where the threat to the homeland and to so many other homelands of our coalition partners is emanating from,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that and it is going quite well, then we hope to turn our attention to ceasefire agreements between the regime and opposition forces.” That’s not right, for all the reasons discussed above. Nevertheless, Tillerson readily agreed that there is no change in policy. We’re still in Obama’s do-nothing mode. Indeed, he had this exchange on “Face the Nation“:
DICKERSON: Is it a priority of U.S. policy to get him out of power?
TILLERSON: Our priority in Syria, John, really hasn’t changed. …
DICKERSON: The argument that people make for more intervention by the United States is that the Syrian people are in no position to make a determination about the president, because he is bombing a lot of them, millions of them have had to flee the country, and that he has created a condition where there is no institution that can remove him from power.
And while the U.S. pursues its interests, he continues to do all of the things that the administration has now said are so morally reprehensible.
TILLERSON: Well, I think, John, it is important that we keep our priorities straight.
And we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS, that, by defeating ISIS and removing their caliphate from their control, we have now eliminated at least or minimized a particular threat, not just the United States, but to the whole stability in the region.
And once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria. We are hopeful that we can prevent a continuation of the civil war, and that we can bring the parties to the table to begin the process of political discussions.
Obama could not force Russia and Syria into meaningful negotiations while rebels were in the field. Does anyone really imagine that Assad would go if he defeated all his foes?
Frankly, Tillerson seems confused on, among other things, Libya. (“But, you know, we’ve seen what that looks like when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya. And the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic. And I would argue that the life of the Libyan people is not all that well off today. So I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change.”) The United States did not initiate “regime change”; the Libyan people rose up in a civil war and decided to unseat Moammar Gaddafi. Together with the Arab League and NATO, Obama directed U.S. forces to protect civilians and help the Libyan people oust their tormentor. Obama’s error was in not securing the peace.
And if you think they both might have a point — even though they are contradictory — then national security adviser H.R. McMaster speaks for you, albeit in rather oblique language:
Well, both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley are right about this. What we really need to do, and what everyone who’s involved in this conflict needs to do is to do everything they can to resolve this civil war, to halt this humanitarian catastrophe, this political catastrophe, not only in Syria, but the catastrophe is affecting the greater Middle East, it’s affecting Europe and it’s a threat to the American people as well.
And so, to do that, what’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem. And what Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.
Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here? Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?
So, I think that while people are really anxious to find — to find inconsistencies in the statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria.
I have no idea what that means either.
The problem here is twofold. First, the president really does not have a policy. He acted impulsively in striking Syria after seeing the pictures of Assad’s victims and told his military to do something about it. The military did, and now he is on to the next thing — if you believe Tillerson, not Haley. Second, the Trump administration’s communications team inexplicably allows discord to flourish in plain view. Why let three different officials go on air with three different messages? It’s as though the team members are acting like booking producers, getting as many of their people as possible booked with no concern about what the unified message should be.
Listen, Syria is hard. It was less hard six years ago, but after more than 400,000 dead Syrians, millions of refugees, Russian and Iranian forces’ occupation and depleted non-jihadi rebels, there are no good options. We nevertheless are obligated to chart the course that is best for U.S. interests, the stability of the region and our allies. Unless Trump is bent on doubling down on a failed policy, he had better come up with something more coherent than what he has.