On August 20, 2012 President Obama remarked that “We have been very clear to the Assad regime… that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” On August 31 of 2013, as Derek Chollet writes, the Obama administration felt it could no longer ignore clear evidence of Syrian use of chemical weapons. Thus, “the president stepped into the sunny Rose Garden”and “announced that he had made two decisions: first, that the U.S. should act against Syria, and second, that he would seek explicit authorization from Congress to do so.”
Despite repeatedly deriding Obama as weak, Republican officials refused to provide the administration with authorization to use force against Syria. Still, perhaps fearing that Obama would ultimately attack anyway, Moscow made a “surprise offer” that led to “the peaceful removal of 1,300 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons.” The regime would later repeatedly use chlorine gas. It has committed, along with Russia, horrific attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. But it does appear to have given up most of its true chemical weapons.
Nonetheless, as Chollet continues, “the near unanimous verdict among observers is that this episode was a failure. Even the president’s sympathizers call the handling of the red line statement and its crossing a ‘debacle,’ an ‘amateurish improvisation’ or the administration’s ‘worst blunder.'” Indeed, throughout the period cable news was awash with talking heads pillorying Obama; when Russia later annexed Crimea in 2014, the media gave plenty of airtime and printed space to critics who claimed that Obama’s ‘weakness‘ on Syria had emboldened Moscow to invade Ukraine.
So what does the head of the Republican National Committee have to say when it comes to President Trump’s decision to order an attack on Iran, only to change his mind at, reportedly, the eleventh hour?
The comparison with Syria is so obvious, and the hypothetical thus so ridiculous, that some Republicans have already taken to their keyboards to explain that Obama on Syria and Trump on Iran are totally different, man. Because reasons: among them, it seems, that Obama destroyed American credibility with European allies while Trump, I suppose, is seen as a stalwart and resolute ally.
Trump’s decision to abort the attack doesn’t matter much for American credibility. It’s not like erratic behavior is anything new from Trump. It’s a good thing that, when push came to shove, he demurred from escalating a crisis of his own making. But the incident just provides more evidence that there’s no real process in Trump’s decision-making process.
Why did Trump pull back at the last minute? Well, we should let him Tweet for himself.
….On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not….— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
Numerous commentators have pointed out that this story—like most of the president’s accounts of his behavior—doesn’t hold together. As Tom Nichols puts it, “Even the most cursory operational brief would have included casualty estimates; the president would have known of such risks hours earlier when he gave the order to proceed, not 10 minutes before the bombs fell.”
Maybe the president isn’t lying and he really did not know the estimated death toll of the strike. But if he isn’t lying, and the briefers didn’t commit unprecedented malpractice, that only leaves two options: Trump himself was never directly briefed on the operation or he lacked the mental capacity to pay attention to the briefing. Any way you slice it, it’s all bad.
I want to close with a reflection on Ronna McDaniel’s Tweet. It’s hard to know to what degree modern Republican officials actually believe what they’re selling or simply consider their supporters easy marks. I used to think that it was the latter. But I’m not sure that there’s much difference between the marks and the grifters anymore.