In one sense, the government is operating as it is supposed to in its response to the Syrian atrocity. The National Security Council will offer up to the President a number of practical ways to respond to the Syrian use of chemical weapons. These will be well considered by the foreign policy professionals. President Trump, for his part, has fulfilled his role by announcing a change of policy based on his gut response that chemical weapons require a response even if just a few days before he had said that Assad’s regime is not his concern. That changed sense may or may not reflect what the American people think and they will form their own judgment, partly on the basis of how successful are the military efforts that are likely to be made. Will the loss of American pilots lead the American people to think a military option was bound to be a failure? Will the Russians dumping Assad lead the American people to think a military policy was a success? These are the moments when a President wins or loses, his own judgment and reputation and style of governing in the dock.
A similar situation arose when Dean Acheson informed Harry Truman in June of 1950 that the North Koreans had invaded South Korea. Truman immediately said we should send our troops over from Japan to defend the South Koreans. Acheson was amazed at the decisiveness of Truman who had beat him to what he was going to advise the President to do. Truman didn’t have Acheson’s command of the nuances of foreign policy, but he knew what he thought and he had a grasp of the general dynamics of the role he wanted the United States to play in the world. But what are the consequences of some military initiative a few steps down the road? It could lead to a disaster, involving the United States in a confrontation with Russia, should Putin not accede to Trump’s response, or, short of that, lead to heightened military involvement by the United States, including boots on the ground, in Syria. And what of Congressional authorization? It was a stretch to apply the authorization by Congress after 9/11 to go after terrorism by ISIS, but this would not be an attack on terrorism but on a sitting regime that is engaged in a civil war. A more prudent President might have formed a coalition of NATO and Arab nations or sought a UN resolution before announcing a do something policy.
Obama might well have also come to authorize military action. Putin knew that the use of weapons of mass destruction would be a trigger for Obama, who thought it was very important to keep wmd’s out of even a civil war where we had no responsibilities but the enforcement of universal moral standards. That is why he convinced Assad to surrender the wmd’s he had before Obama launched a military strike whether or not he had Congressional authorization. Obama got what he wanted though he didn’t get Assad out of power, which is when he used the phrase “red line” to describe the fact that Assad had surrendered his right to rule Syria because of the general destruction of the civil war, not because of the use of wmd’s, the two often confused by journalists. Putin may therefore decide now that it is time to dump Assad, having lost patience with him.
Obama can be accused of overthinking his options, as clearly is not the case with Truman and Trump. But there are some advantages of that, looking a few steps beyond what even the NSC might think to do. Obama knew enough about foreign policy to second guess his experts and, after a while, was able to counter the advice he was given about what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring to do less than more in the name of doing nothing stupid. Well, I trusted his style more than that of Trump and Truman and more even than that of those Presidents with military experience, such as Eisenhower, who weakened the military by focussing of more bang for the buck, which means we could fight a nuclear war but not a conventional one, or by Carter, who took a flyer on a military solution to the Iran hostage crisis, even if it was an iffy proposition. Obama joins Lincoln and FDR in having insisted on their own military priorities and gotten his way.