The question tormented Obama administration officials for years: Should we strike at Syrian dictator Bashar Assad or not?
Under President Barack Obama, the answer was always no. It took President Donald Trump less than three months to say yes.
In the wake of this week’s attacks, Democratic Syria hawks couldn’t help but rue the fact that Trump had become their unlikely savior.
“Obama should have done this four years ago when the problem was easier. History will judge him harshly because he didn’t,” said Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who is now director of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
“We have to depersonalize this. Some people don’t like Trump, so they’re upset that he did this,” she added. “If a policy is right, congratulate those who are carrying it out.”
One longtime proponent of military action against Assad is former Secretary of State John Kerry, who was “absolutely supportive” of Trump’s strike and “gratified to see that it happened quickly,” according to a person close to the former diplomat.
Kerry is watching to see whether more strikes might be coming, this person said, who added that Kerry “believes if executed correctly and clearly, [military action] can help reenergize the diplomatic channel” to produce a peace deal.
Trump’s attack on a Syrian air base has produced conflicting emotions among other former Obama officials, who spent hundreds of hours wrestling with the mind-bending complexities of the Syrian civil war, only to see Trump take swift and at last superficially successful action after just a few days’ consideration.
Some find themselves in the previously unthinkable position of saluting Trump’s foreign policy judgment. Others acknowledged that Trump had also struck at Obama’s legacy—which many critics say is characterized by a stubborn aversion to using force in Syria despite pressure from top advisers.
In interviews Friday, several Obama national security alumni described themselves as balancing satisfaction at seeing the Syrian dictator pay a price for his brutality with their personal dislike and distrust of Trump.
“I am completely torn,” said Ilan Goldenberg, who served as a senior official for Middle East issues at both the State Department and Pentagon under Obama.
“For six years we’d been wringing our hands about this thing. And then — boom — a hammer on your head and it’s done,” he said.
Goldenberg said he agrees with Trump’s decision to go forward with airstrikes this week. But he worries Trump is poorly equipped to handle its fallout, including potential acts of escalation by Assad or his allies, Russia and Iran. “I wish we could have somebody who is more aggressive than Obama—but I have no confidence that Trump is the guy,” he said.
Other former Obama officials who were deeply involved in Syria policy agreed.
“I know it feels really good right now to have Assad be the object of a strike. It’s something people have wanted been waiting for, for so long. We always wanted to see him pay. And that never really came from the Obama administration, which was a huge source of frustration for us,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who was the Pentagon’s country director for Syria from 2010 through 2013.
“But I’m just much more cautious about expressing joy, because a strike in itself without any follow through strategy, without any goal in mind, is almost more damaging than not doing anything at all,” she added.
Goldenberg and El-Gamal are among many Obama administration veterans who were flashing back to September 2013, when the White House debated whether to hit Assad’s regime for using nerve gas against civilians in rebel-held areas, an act Obama had previously said would cross a “red line.”
After building a case for what he said would be a targeted strike against Syrian forces, Obama aborted the plan when he brokered a deal with Russia to remove and destroy Assad’s declared chemical stockpile.
That outcome frustrated top Obamas advisers who had argued for a strike in countless hours of tense meetings. U.S. allies in the Middle East fumed that Obama had permanently damaged his credibility by backing down from a clear threat of force.
By contrast, Trump finds himself basking in congratulations from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as key U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Critics have pounced on both Kerry and Obama, saying that Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons this week proved that the deal they cut with Russia, which led to the removal and destruction of 1300 tons of chemical agents, was an obvious failure.
Former Obama officials counter that that it was virtually impossible to remove every trace of chemical agent from war-torn Syria in 2013, with or without Assad’s cooperation. Assad has also had several years to reconstitute his supply, something only deposing him could have prevented. They also noted that many of the removed chemicals had been stored in areas eventually captured by Islamic radicals.
“The world is still better off without the substantial amount of chemical weapons that were removed and destroyed—and would otherwise be susceptible to use by Assad or capture by ISIL or al Qaeda,” said Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser and Obama confidante.
Some former Obama officials said they agree with Trump’s decision to strike—but mistrust his motives.
“My view in 2013 was that we should respond” militarily, said Phil Gordon, who served as the top aide for Middle East issues on Obama’s national security council at the time. “I thought it would require great discipline not to get sucked into the civil war, but that it would be quite an accomplishment to deter the use of chemical weapons by imposing a cost. Setting aside my reservations about Trump, in that context I support action now for the same reason.”
But core Obama loyalists showed little inclination to congratulate Trump. They noted that he still hasn’t faced the real test that gave Obama the most pause: the prospect that Assad, Russia and Iran could react to a strike with new provocations, including another civilian massacre, that would force the U.S. to choose between escalation and backing down.
“No one doubts the capacity of our military to destroy a target like this,” Rhodes said. “You certainly do hope it improves the situation in Syria, but you can never tell the impact of a strike like this the day after it is taken. We’ll have to see how it plays out.”