The Trump Administration’s strikes last week on the Shayrat airfield to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using sarin gas divided the political establishment—not the left from the right, but the mainstream from the fringe. The divide is less about policy than about America’s role in the world.
Chuck Schumer joined hawkish members of the Republican establishment, like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubioto in praising the strikes. Hillary Clinton was in favor of Trump’s action, as was Clinton ally and Barack Obama’s former Pentagon chief and CIA director Leon Panetta. Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of the Obama Administration’s State Department’s policy planning, tweeted, “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities.”
Assad supporter Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii, joined a number of Trump supporters who were disappointed in their man to express dismay at the strikes, and displeasure. Radio host Laura Ingraham was against the action, along with a number of figures from the alt-right, like white nationalist ideologue Richard Spencer, and others who now think Trump is just another “deep state/Neo-Con puppet.”
Former Obama officials have proven themselves just as adept as the alt-right in working up conspiracy theories. Phillip Gordon, a former White House aide who worked on the Middle East, argues that Trump used the resources of the American government as a messaging ploy to distract attention from “the possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian efforts to influence the U.S. presidential election.” That is, Trump bombed Putin’s allies to prove he isn’t a Putin ally.
Some of Gordon’s former colleagues are covering their tracks. A number of former Obama hands are saying that even after Obama boasted of a diplomatic triumph in getting Assad to give up his chemical weapons in a 2013 deal with Russia, the wise men in the White House knew all along that the Syrian regime had not given up the entirety of its chemical weapons. That is, they weren’t suckered by Russia’s bogus promise to strip the Syrian dictator of his unconventional arsenal—they just lied.
“We always knew we had not gotten everything, that the Syrians had not been fully forthcoming in their declaration,” said Anthony Blinken, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser. That’s right, tweeted Daniel Shapiro, the Obama Administration’s ambassador to Israel. “We always knew Syria likely squirreled away some residual undeclared stocks and/or production capability, now proven by Idlib strike.”
That’s not what Obama hands said at the time. As late as January, national security adviser Susan Rice boasted that “we were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.” In October, Obama said: “It continues to puzzle me, the degree to which people seem to forget that we actually got the chemical weapons out of Syria.”
Assad’s attacks last week that killed 85 people in Idlib province showed Obama was wrong.
John Kerry said several times that Assad had given up 100 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons. And yet Kerry is also the most prominent former Obama official who applauded last week’s action. These two things are not unrelated. According to someone close to the former secretary of state, he was “absolutely supportive” of Trump’s strike and “gratified to see that it happened quickly.”
Kerry had wanted to retaliate for the August 2013 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta that killed 1,500 people. On August 26, Kerry gave a speech in which he said: “As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing, while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget.”
Of course Kerry would eventually come to say that they got 100 percent of Assad’s weapons. The man who spoke those words would likely have trouble reliving the same scene in his memory, never mind a reality in which Assad continued to kill people with chemical weapons. But it wouldn’t happen again, Kerry told himself and others, it couldn’t happen again because Assad no longer had any chemical weapons at all.
Kerry will likely go down in history as the American diplomat who struck an arms agreement with a state sponsor of terror that virtually guaranteed it a nuclear weapons program within a little more than a decade. It might have been otherwise—he wanted to do the right thing but was pointed in the wrong direction. It’s tragic. Kerry might have been known for the stand he took to drum up support for a strike after the attack on Ghouta.
On August 30, Kerry gave another speech, where he said:
We are the United States of America. We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations. This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us, and it matters to who we are.
Some referred to this as Kerry’s “Churchillian moment,” but in reality, it was a relatively simple, modest, and moving formulation of an American ethos, stated with the humility expected of a man who first came to prominence as an opponent of a foreign war in which he served. It’s not a policy, it’s a sensibility. Hell yes, if there’s a monster in front of you, you shoot first and ask questions later. Or, what kind of American thinks FDR’s greatest moment was not bombing the trains to Auschwitz?
The foreign policy establishment that Obama was proud to buck, when he walked back his plan to strike at Assad targets and made a phony deal with Russia, is a function of American reality. It is the same with every nation, whose interactions with foreigners can be nothing other of than a reflection of the habits, morals, and beliefs that sustain it. Americans shoot at monsters. This is the central story we tell ourselves, from our high literature, to pop culture, from Ahab to Batman. Trump did the right thing, but ordering strikes on a Syrian airfield hardly makes him the hero of Shane.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).