Thoughtful Obama Would Have Avoided The Iraq Trap By Not Acting on Impulse in Syria

Did President Trump take the bait President Obama foresaw?

Thursday evening, Trump ordered, without a plan and without Congressional approval, 50 Tomahawk missile strikes at an airfield in the sovereign country of Syria. He did it on instinct, as a show of force, it seems, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the strikes don’t represent “change in our policy or our posture in Syria.”

Trump justified this action because children were killed by the chemical attack. However, seven civilians were reportedly killed by the Trump missiles and 4 of them were children.

A senior administration official said the strike should not be interpreted as beginning of wider campaign to weaken or remove Assad.

It was an emotional reaction, possibly, to being called weak for Trump’s failure to take action after a horrific chemical attack on innocents in Syria. Anyone who saw the pictures would be provoked to want to take action.

The thing is, what kind of action and to what end. If we learned anything after former President Bush’s disastrous invasion of another sovereign country, Iraq, it should have at least been that we have to have a plan before taking action.

But Trump has no plan. What he might have done instead is reveal the United States as weak, by playing into Assad’s hands.

President Obama was the kind of president who thought things all the way through. When it came to foreign policy and the Obama doctrine, in his efforts to avoid the trap of another Iraq, the Democratic President was known for asking, “Then what?”

“The question President Obama often asked his national security team was: Then what?” Jen Psaki, CNN political commentator former White House communications director during the Obama administration, wrote in a CNN opinion column Friday. “He wanted to know what the plan was for the days and weeks after military action, what the costs and consequences would be and whether our objective would be met — not just that day, but over the longer term.”

Obama wanted to avoid the Iraq trap.

“In 2013, Obama feared, not without justification, the second- and third-order consequences of an American missile strike on the regime,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote of the Obama doctrine Friday morning in the Atlantic .

Obama worried about the slippery slope in the Middle East, Goldberg explained.

The Democratic President worried that if he struck Syria and Assad survived, it would be presented as a sign of American weakness. Goldberg explained (my bold), “In Syria, he understood that Assad would most likely survive an American missile strike on his airbases; the day after such strikes ended, Assad, Obama believed, would have emerged from his hiding place, and declared victory: The greatest power in the world tried to destroy him, and failed.… Assad and his allies, understanding that the appetite of average Americans for yet another Middle Eastern war was limited, could have tried to provoke Obama into escalation.”

Obama called that, because:

For President Obama, the Syria issue was a challenge to not react emotionally not just to the atrocities, but to the sense that he was being pushed to show strength and was being humiliated to some degree for not showing it.

“The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake,” Goldberg quoted Obama as saying. “And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

It’s a hard call to say what the “right” action or response is, and certainly the human right atrocities require a long range strategy. Shouldn’t that strategy include allowing Syrian refugees in the U.S. — another thing Trump campaigned against. (Not for the first time, Trump is learning on the job, reinventing the wheel even on the most basic of issues.)

At the very least, Trump should be listening to the concern Obama put forth, when he predicted the very weakness Trump just enacted.

Trump should have had a plan, he should have had Congressional approval, he should have thought about the safety of the ground troops we have in Syria right now, and hopefully he should have other allies on board with a strategy that involved diplomacy as well as military strength.

The big problem here is that by doing this without any plan, Trump might have done Assad’s bidding for him. Trump took the bait.

The act now, sort it out later doctrine of Trump is reminiscent of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But it’s actually much worse, because Trump sold himself as an isolationist. Trump says there won’t be follow up to this attack. Trump gave Russia a head’s up, while not giving Congress a head’s up. At least Bush was willing to follow through on his beliefs.

Trump doesn’t really have beliefs, he has feelings. And many of those feelings revolve around how he is seen, rather than what is best for the country, let alone the world.

Obama’s stance on Syria wasn’t one that made us feel good right away, and perhaps it wasn’t the best choice. That is a matter worthy of debate. But the endless war or reveal the US as “weak” trap he foresaw is real and Trump just took the bait.

Donald Trump didn’t just solve the crisis in Syria. He lobbed a stone rather ineffectually and is now walking away, having added four more dead children to the tally with no visible threat to stop further atrocities.