In 2012, President Obama now famously warned Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that any use of chemical weapons would constitute the metaphorical crossing of a “red line” and would be met with military action.
Let me be clear: I am a supporter of the president, and I understand what his reasoning was for ordering Tomahawk missiles to be launched at an airfield in Syria as a response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad. The president wants Assad – and the rest of the world – to know that actions have consequences, and when the United States promises a show of force if certain conditions are not met, then it will follow through on that promise.
The idea here is that Assad was not supposed to use chemical weapons, and he did, anyway, so he had to be punished. After all, who is going to respect a leader who makes threats and then doesn’t follow through on them?
In fact, that was Obama’s biggest mistake. Not the fact that he did not follow through on the “red line” promise, but that he issued the “red line” warning in the first place. That left him with two options when Syria crossed that line: commit an act of violence that in all likelihood would enflame Syria, Russia, and Iran at the same time while making things worse overall, or look like a weak leader whose threats nobody takes seriously.
For frame of reference here, I used to know a guy who ran a sportsbook, and he would tell me all the time about customers who had “gotten over” on him. If you are unfamiliar with what that means, he was basically referring to people who had made bets with him, lost, and then refused to pay. It was at that point he would have two choices: respond with violence to send a message and try to collect, or eat the loss and just refuse to do business with the person ever again.
He told me he always chose the latter. Why? “Because it isn’t worth it. It would be frustrating, and hurting the guy would feel like the right thing to do, but far too many things were likely to go wrong and make matters worse for me in the long run.”
In this case, he meant jail or some sort of violent retaliation. In the case of Syria, it would mean thousands more dead and a country that could end up even worse off than it was in the first place.
Again, I understand why President Trump did what he did. As I said previously, Assad is horrible, and I feel terribly for his victims. I also recognize that making threats you don’t follow up on sets a dangerous precedent that invites countries to disregard any threats you make.
But realistically speaking, what is the end game here?
In addition to Syria obviously being upset, so are Russia and Iran, who are strategic allies of Assad. Do we want an armed conflict with all three of them? People were reportedly injured and/or killed in the airstrike. Is hurting them going to bring back the people Assad allegedly gassed, or is just going to inspire more blowback against military forces we have serving in the region? Even if we do toss Assad out, we know some of the rebels have ties to very dangerous groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. If Assad is pushed out, there is a pretty good chance one of those factions wins up in power. What then?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no good answer to this problem, but the best one is to have the International Criminal Court handle Assad. It may not be as satisfying as dropping bombs, but it is also nowhere near as likely to cause a veritable cornucopia of new problems in the region on top of the ones we already face.
President Obama made a terrible mistake when he made his famous “red line” declaration. President Trump compounded it with the airstrikes he unleashed.
One of the biggest fears I had of a potential Hillary Clinton presidency was her history of pushing the United States into violent conflicts and regime change expeditions. She has made it clear in the past that she wants the U.S. much more heavily involved in the Syria conflict, and mere hours before the airstrikes, she more or less advocated that exact same course of action. But she also wanted to take it much further, advocating the overthrow of Assad and a show of force against Russia by shooting down the planes they have flying over Syrian airspace.
I hope President Trump was simply doing this to send a message and that he does not follow up with the even more drastic measures Hillary Clinton has pushed for. Because if Iraq and Afghanistan are any indication, once we get in, we may never get out. The whole process becomes like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon: it never ends.
And many more lives will be lost in the process. Even many of the president’s staunchest supporters don’t have the heart to watch that happen. Neither do I.
I just hope President Trump doesn’t, either.
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