“These tactical strikes make it clear that the [Bashar al-Assad] regime can no longer count on American inaction as it carries out atrocities against the Syrian people.”
— House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), April 6, 2017
“The best punishment for Assad’s war crimes is for the moderate elements of the opposition to prevail. But the President’s ill-conceived, half-hearted proposal will do little to help. It will make America look weak, when we need to be strong.”
— Ryan, Sept. 11, 2013
The Republican leaders of the House and the Senate this past week were quick to praise President Trump’s strike on Syria after an apparent chemical weapons attack. But in 2013, when President Barack Obama was weighing a strike, they were opposed.
Trump was opposed to a military strike, as well, but he was a private citizen then, without access to information that congressional leaders presumably would have about the plans contemplated by Obama.
Let’s put this to the flip-flop test.
First of all, we have to stipulate that the situations are not necessarily comparable. When Obama contemplated his strikes in 2013, Syria still had a large arsenal of chemical weapons, and the United States was not engaged militarily in Syria.
Today, Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons have been greatly reduced (though clearly not eliminated), with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons overseeing the removal of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons from Syria after Obama struck a deal with Russia that led him to cancel his planned attack. Moreover, the United States strikes military targets in Syria (against territory held by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL and ISIS) almost daily. Russia entered the civil war, effectively on the side of the Assad government, in 2015.
Trump’s attack was discreet, designed to punish Syria for using chemical weapons by attacking the airport from which an attack was believed to have been launched. His attack took place over one night and involved only cruise missiles. Obama’s planned attack was deeper and broader, designed to last three to four days, using U.S. aircraft.
So the first step in Obama’s plan was take out air defense systems. The U.S. jets would have targeted aircraft used to deliver chemical weapons, as well as chemical weapons units. But at the same time, the plan called for avoiding chemical-weapons storage facilities because of concern about plumes.
The Obama plan “was closer to Operation Desert Fox in 1998,” said Derek Chollet, who at the time was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and who briefed members of Congress about the Obama plan. (Desert Fox was a four-day campaign launched by President Bill Clinton against Iraqi targets said to house or deliver weapons of mass destruction.) “It was not a pinprick. It would have unfolded over three to four days and was designed to substantially degrade the ability to deliver chemical weapons and also to serve as a deterrence.”
In briefing Congress, Chollet said lawmakers were not given the entire plan, but “it was clear that this was more than a one-off attack.” He added that lawmakers asked many legitimate questions, especially because planners estimated that two-thirds of Syria’s chemical weapons would not be destroyed. So questions were raised about whether the plan would lead to blowback: more chemical-weapons use by Syria, thus requiring another cycle of U.S. attacks. “They did not want to share accountability for what was going to happen in Syria,” he said.
When we contacted Ryan and McConnell’s staffs to understand their change in position, they both pointed to a statement at the time by then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry: that the attack would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
As McConnell recalled in remarks to reporters on April 6: “I don’t know whether he had in mind knocking out a tent and a couple of camels or what.”
AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said, “The Obama administration was promoting what they themselves called an ‘unbelievably small’ action that the speaker and many others believed would not be an effective response to the crisis in Syria. As he said at the time, this minimalist approach would not achieve its objective.”
Kerry’s comment infuriated the White House at the time, and Obama went on national television to assure Americans “the U.S. does not do pinpricks.”
Yet, three years later, Kerry’s flub appears to have defined the Obama plan, so much so that lawmakers now wrongly believe that Trump’s one-night jab with cruise missiles is more robust than what Obama had in mind. As McConnell put it, Trump’s attack was “planned, well-executed, went right to the heart of the matter, which is using chemical weapons. So, had I seen that — that kind of approach by President Obama, I’m sure I would’ve signed up.”
McConnell, in a lengthy speech on the Senate floor in 2013 opposing a military strike, posed a number of tough questions about Obama’s foreign-policy leadership, including noting the fact that Syria already had used chemical weapons on previous occasions and that Obama had failed to act.
“The president’s delayed response was to call for a show of force, for targeted, limited strikes against the regime. We have been told that the purpose of these strikes is to deter and degrade the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons,” he said, appearing to know then that it was more than a one-night attack. But he said it was obvious — even to Obama — that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was not a threat to the vital interests of the United States.
“The president’s proposal seems fundamentally flawed, since if it’s too narrow, it may not deter Assad’s further use of chemical weapons,” McConnell said. “But if it’s too broad, it risks jeopardizing the security of these same stockpiles, potentially putting them into the hands of extremists.”
McConnell added: “Indeed, if through this limited strike the president’s credibility is not restored, because Assad uses chemical weapons again, what then? Add new targets aimed at toppling the regime which end up jeopardizing control of these same chemical weapons stashes — allowing them to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or others intent on using them against the United States or our allies. Where would the cycle of escalation end?” (You can read the full speech here.)
Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, noted that McConnell said on the Senate floor that a follow-up strategy is necessary after Trump’s attack. “In the days ahead, I am committed to working with the administration to continue developing a counter-ISIL strategy that hastens the defeat of ISIL and establishes objectives for dealing with the Assad regime in a manner that preserves the institutions of government in an effort to prevent a failed state,” McConnell said.
Strong, informed of the actual Obama plan, replied: “We’re not going to be able to comment on what President Obama’s classified war plans allegedly included. The fact remains that the chief advocate for President Obama’s proposed strikes considered them unbelievably small and broadcast that to the world. In and of itself, that undermined the deterrent effect of whatever the rest of their plan may or may not have been.”
The Pinocchio Test
Comparisons between two foreign policy challenges can be facile.
Syria in 2013 was a country with large stocks of chemical weapons, so even a three-day attack would have left much of its arsenal in place. Syria in 2017 has vastly fewer chemical weapons, but the civil war has tilted toward the Assad regime, especially after increased involvement of Russia and Iran. Syria also engaged in a chemical weapons attack after having pledged that its weapons had been removed. Trump thus faced a different set of calculations than Obama in contemplating a response.
But these changed circumstances do not excuse the fact that McConnell and Ryan opposed a multiday attack to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile — with McConnell even questioning whether U.S. interests were at stake — while quickly applauding Trump’s attack as robust action demonstrating U.S. leadership. In a bit of revisionist history, officials are now suggesting that they opposed Obama’s plan because it was weaker than Trump’s attack, relying on the Kerry quote to make their case. But the reality is that Trump’s action was more limited than what Obama had contemplated at the time. At the very least, that should be acknowledged before applauding the new commander in chief.
An Upside-Down Pinocchio
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