The events of 4 April 2017 were largely unprecedented. Rarely, if ever, have two US presidents been faced with crises so similar that their responses can be thoroughly compared. It was on this day that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad allegedly employed chemical weapons in an attack that killed 80 people, 10 of which were children, in the north-western Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. This attack mirrored that which took place in 2013, in the Syrian city of Ghouta, famous for President Obama’s decision to not militarily intervene despite distinguishing the use of chemical weapons by Assad as his ‘Red Line.’ Both attacks targeted civilians, utilised the deadly gas sarin, and came at a time of geopolitical tensions. Where the crises differ, however, is in the American response. President Trump quickly – if not overzealously – responded with missile strikes on an Assad-held airfield, which prompted a much wider debate about the extent of the U.S.’s both legal and physical presence in the region. The swiftness of the strikes came as a surprise to many, as Trump had spent years, via Twitter, both criticising and pleading with Obama to refrain from military action in Syria – which, unlike Trump, he contentiously did. While the strikes have stirred up old and new emotions regarding both leaders, the situation has presented a unique opportunity to analyse the reactions of two influential and ideologically clashing presidents.
Although it came as a surprise, Trump’s military action has drawn support from Democrats and Republicans alike. It seems that many on both sides of the aisle feel that Assad’s use of chemical weapons warrants intervention, as much as they feel it did when Obama was faced with the same situation. During what has come to be known as the ‘Red Line Crisis,’ higher-ups in the Obama administration, most notably Secretary of State John Kerry, strongly urged the president to act against the Assad regime. Many of these supporters of intervention were Democrats, motivated by liberal interventionalist ideals and the graphic images of suffering that were flashing across TV screens daily. More classically neoconservative Republicans, normally in favour of American interventionism, either kept quiet or opposed military intervention in Syria. Republicans such as Marco Rubio ‘suddenly turned isolationist, unable to support a president of the opposite party.’ This is in stark contrast to now, as Rubio has passionately defended Trump’s strikes in Syria, a move more appropriate to his ideology. This has made clear that Trump has the bipartisan support Obama lacked in respect to Syrian intervention.
While the military action itself seems to have drawn quiet approval of the left, the authorisation process, or lack thereof, by which Trump went about sanctioning the bombing has come under heavy fire by Democrats and drew the legality of the strikes into question. Such debate was prevalent during Obama’s response, and many of the same congressional worries have resurfaced. While there were larger historical and ideological reasons that Obama withheld military involvement in Syria after the first chemical attack, one of his expressed concerns had to do with congressional approval. In an increasingly rare move for the president, Obama decided to refer the matter to Congress for a vote. Although against something of ‘deeper philosophical importance’ to him, he stated that if he were to authorise a strike it would have to be in accordance of both international and US law. It appears that Trump did not share this same concern, as he authorised the strikes without the consent of Congress or the UN, a move that has been criticised extensively. It is worth noting that Obama had set a significant precedent ‘under which limited, short-duration strikes require a different standard from long-term engagements, which would require congressional authorisation under the War Powers Resolution,’ and that the U.S. had been conducting air strikes in Syria since 2014. However, the swiftness of Trump’s retaliation has brought about significant concerns from Democrats in Congress, and has raised the issue of a perceived ‘ratcheting up’ of conflicts around the world by the Trump administration. U.S. airstrikes are killing significantly more civilians than ever before, although the reasons for this are inconclusive. Besides amplifying conflict in places like North Korea and Iran, it is troubling to note what Trump’s Syrian strikes have done to ever-intensifying U.S.-Russian relations. Russia has warned of ‘extremely serious consequences’ regarding the strikes, with political leaders such as former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev going so far to say that the U.S. is ‘on the verge of a military clash with Russia.’ In many cases, it was this type of complicating international tension that Obama wished to avoid when he declined to become militarily involved in Syria. His disdain for the former President Bush, the overextending quagmire of the Iraq War, and what he calls ‘the Washington Playbook’ of retaliation came to bear in Obama’s decision. He was clear and somewhat consistent throughout his presidency in his feelings toward Middle East involvement – ‘He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East … who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation.’ President Obama made his decision largely based on a desire to not be Bush, and according to many, such a decision hit his reputation hard and allowed Assad to get away with war crimes. Perhaps President Trump has used the same logic. Obama did not authorise a strike, and therefore Trump felt he must. It is true that Obama’s decision was paraded as a failure of U.S. hegemony, and despite both his conflicting anti-interventionist tweets and promises that he would ‘bomb the s–t out of’ ISIS Trump jumped on a chance to both draw support of other neoconservative Republicans and Democrats, as well as paint himself as a polar opposite to his predecessor. If it was a conscious decision, or simply a twitchy trigger finger, it has sparked remarkable discussion as to presidential power and American presence in the Middle East.
Many, including Syrian nationals and those who do not support Trump, have agreed that Assad must be held accountable for these attacks. This idea forms the basis of why they have supported Trump’s airstrikes. However, in the cloud of criticism that did and still does accompany Obama’s decision not to militarily retaliate, it is often forgotten that Obama’s response was not simply inaction. After much deliberation, doubt, and post-Iraq apprehension, Obama decided to take a different route. At the Russian G20 Summit Obama spoke to President Vladimir Putin, and presented him with an attractive compromise. If Russia could convince Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons program, it would avoid U.S. military strikes in Syria. In the coming weeks Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov worked to remove 1,300 metric tonnes of weaponised chemicals – chemicals that Assad previously denied the existence of. Unfortunately, one can now take grim note of the deal’s failure. The Assad regime maintained a store of chemical weapons, and the suffering of civilians has continued. Much of this failure to deterge can be attributed to duplicity of the Assad regime, as well as stunning denial of Assad’s complicity by the Russian government. Some blame, however, must be imputed to Obama’s failure to retaliate. Without a threat of military strike, the Syrian government simply had no incentive to comply with Obama’s demands. Despite this, the importance of Obama’s negotiations must not go unnoticed. While Trump’s strikes represented opposition to the Assad regime, they seem to have caused more harm than good. Former State Department Chief of Staff David Eckels Wade said it best: ‘However incomplete [Obama’s] deal ultimately proved, it did probably alleviate more human suffering than a single night of airstrikes.’ Trump mourned for the ‘beautiful babies of Idlib,’ stating that ‘no child of God should suffer such horror,’ even though his retaliatory airstrikes killed four children. If Trump truly cares for the suffering happening in Syria, and wishes to combat it, there must be more than the firing of warning shots; he must back it up with diplomacy and peaceful negotiation.
It therefore seems that the best strategy in the case of such an attack is a combination of both presidential plans of action. Obama’s negotiation lacked insurance or incentive, and Trump’s airstrikes lacked legal forethought or long-term strategy. If Trump is to succeed at quelling the horrors of the Assad regime, he must not fall prey to baser instincts of his anti-Obama past, nor develop a quick trigger finger. In the end, he is in a position that holds support of his peers, a position that eluded Obama during his version of such a crisis. If Trump recognises this, which is doubtful, he may accomplish more than is expected. But that is a big if.