Biden and other top administration officials had in the past been critical of how the Trump administration dealt with the use of force in the Middle East, leading to allegations of hypocrisy.
But how much basis is there for that?
One tweet circulated widely Thursday night into Friday morning, from now-White House press secretary Jen Psaki. When then-President Donald Trump struck Syria in April 2017 in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, she questioned the use of force.
“What is the legal authority for strikes?” Psaki said. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country.”
Fox News and other conservative media used the tweet to allege a double standard, with Fox saying it wasn’t “appearing to age well” in light of Biden’s strike. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and other liberals who have pushed for getting out of the Middle East also spotlighted the tweet as an example of overzealous U.S. intervention and the potential lack of legal basis for the strike.
Now-Vice President Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) raised similar questions after another Trump strike on Syria in 2018. This strike targeted chemical weapons facilities and was joined in by other Western allies.
“I am deeply concerned about the legal rationale of last night’s strikes,” said Harris, who was then a senator from California. “The president needs to lay out a comprehensive strategy in Syria in consultation with Congress — and he needs to do it now.”
One very important difference between these 2017 and 2018 strikes and the strike Thursday is the impetus. While those strikes were about chemical weapons — and raised valid concerns that even some Trump allies shared about whether the United States should get involved — Thursday’s are described as being specifically about defending Americans in the region.
The Biden administration will need to make its case about the legitimacy and proportionality of the strikes, but its stated justification is that this was a response to Iran-linked groups targeting military personnel and contractors in northern Iraq, killing a contractor and injuring a service member, along with other threats involving U.S. interests specifically.
There have long been questions about just how much power a president should have to carry out such strikes in the absence of a formal and specific authorization for the use of military force in Syria, but the situations aren’t totally analogous.
Psaki’s statement about Syria being a sovereign country would seem to apply here and will be worth an explanation, regardless of the impetus for the attack, but she’s also not the one responsible for creating policy.
Biden’s past comments came up as well. Fox’s story, for instance, suggested Biden’s 2019 remarks about Trump and Syria also hadn’t “aged well.” The offending tweet: citing Trump’s Syria policy and saying “his erratic, impulsive decisions endanger our troops and make us all less safe.”
Biden had previously tweeted, in June of that year, that “Trump’s erratic, impulsive actions are the last thing we need as Commander-in-Chief. No president should order a military strike without fully understanding the consequences.”
“Ummm…did you forget to delete this before you bombed Syria @POTUS?” asked a Newsmax contributor and Trump adviser.
This is even more apples to oranges than the others. Biden’s case was less that the strikes weren’t legal or were a bad idea than that Trump had no real strategy. What’s more, the impetus wasn’t a U.S. strike on Syria, but rather a cyberstrike against Iran — combined with Trump having authorized a conventional military attack on Iran for shooting down a U.S. intelligence drone, but pulling it back at the last minute.
There is a clear difference between provoking Iran, a more formidable regional power than Syria and one the United States has sought to avoid directly provoking.
Biden also wasn’t raising objections from a noninterventionist perspective. It was quite the opposite. If you look at what Biden actually said about Trump’s Syria policy in that October 2019 speech, his objection was that Trump was leaving. He was criticizing Trump for a planned withdrawal from Syria, saying it amounted to abandoning U.S. Kurdish allies in the region.
“Don’t believe Trump’s con here; this is not American leadership,” Biden said. “And this is not the end of forever wars. It’s a recipe for more forever wars.”
Biden has also made clear that he believes in retaliation for the targeting of U.S. troops in Syria and elsewhere. When it was reported in 2019 that Russia had placed bounties on Americans in the region, Biden criticized Trump for not doing enough.
“Did you hear the president say a single word?” Biden said in August 2019. “Did he lift one finger? Never before has an American president played such a subservient role to a Russian leader.”