In at least one sense, the U.S. airstrike in Syria on February 25, targeting Iranian-backed militants who have attacked U.S. forces in Iraq, is not really related to events in August 2013. President Biden, in ordering the strike, was reacting in a quite natural way for an American president when troops he commands come under fire. The troops are there to help stabilize Iraq, a mission they’ve had since ISIS stormed into the world’s view in 2014. Iran is also an enemy of ISIS, but it’s been working to weaken the U.S. presence in Iraq since 2003, the better to ensure its influence through allies like Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Popular Mobilization Forces. Iran’s allies strike U.S. forces, U.S. forces strike back at Iran’s allies. It happened under Donald Trump, and it will continue to happen under Joe Biden.
In another sense, however, Biden is doing what Barack Obama should have done in seven and a half years ago. For the first time, a Democratic president is using military force against armed men in Syria who are part of the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis. What Obama should have done when Assad murdered hundreds of Syrian civilians with chemical weapons, Biden did when Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada killed an American contractor and wounded a service member and four contractors. Yes, the connection is a tenuous one. Even so, there is some satisfaction to take in the fact that it happened.
It is understandable that, when learning of the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Obama was reluctant to respond militarily. Even though he had stated in 2011 that Assad should relinquish power rather than continuing to slaughter those who challenged his dictatorship, and even though he had insisted in 2012 that a chemical weapons attack would be a “red line” for him, Obama had never explicitly promised to use force, either to topple Assad or to punish him for using chemical weapons. Having killed Osama bin Laden, withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq (for a while), and been stung by the violence that erupted in Libya after (though certainly not immediately after) the U.S.-led overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, it’s hard to blame Obama for not wanting to continue the American military presence in the greater Middle East. It’s not surprising that he would instead want to turn the page on America’s post-9/11 era of intervention in the region.
Nevertheless, when Assad, desperate to keep his grip on power, turned to weapons of mass destruction, Obama should have struck forcefully. He indicated that he was prepared to do so. France had agreed to join the operation — French aircraft were ready to take off. But then, he decided to ask for congressional approval. This was a disaster. With support in Congress for intervention quite low, going to Congress cost him his chance to actually have an impact in Syria. It still bothers me that he was okay with that.
I remember my own reaction to Obama’s announcement at the time. I was furious. Watching him speak on TV, announcing that he was prepared to use American military power to punish Assad, to then hear that he was even bothering to consult Congress appalled me. He has the power right there in his hands, I remember thinking. Why doesn’t he just use it?!
The disastrous presidency of Trump, the fact that for four years it was an unstable, immature egomaniac who commanded the U.S. military, has not made me recant my hope that Obama would order those strikes. American history, especially recent American history, is full of examples of presidents sending troops into battle without asking for the permission of Congress. A one-off strike in Syria like the one Obama could have ordered, or even many such strikes spread out over weeks or months or years, is hardly an abuse of power by the commander in chief on comparable to anything Trump attempted or comprehended. What matter are the cause and the commander, not whether or not Congress has been consulted.
My liberal hawkishness on Syria and similar conflicts dates back to 1999. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo that year, the eleven-week bombing campaign that halted Slobodan Milosevic’s attacks on Kosovo’s Albanian population, showed me what American power could do, that the most powerful military in human history could be a force for good in the world. Operation Allied Force placed firmly in my mind the truth that, whatever ill might result from America’s actions in other countries, there was always this potential for good. Kosovo is why the disaster of Iraq has never soured me on wars of choice. This intervention, led by Democrat Bill Clinton, is why I thought in 2011, and still think now, that Obama was right to intervene in Libya (and that, in retrospect, Clinton was wrong to do nothing about Rwanda in 1994). By August 2013, it seemed like Obama, who I had voted for twice and whom I greatly admired, was about to overcome his initial reluctance about Syria (like Clinton’s about Bosnia until August 1995) and finally place the U.S. on the right side of the conflict. He might even have said he was placing us “on the right side of history.” But he didn’t.
Ousting Assad was never going to be the goal of air and missile strikes, and that was fine. The goal of NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo was not to overthrow Milosevic, but to stop his ethnic and sectarian massacres and the instability they caused. Regardless of Obama’s insistence that Assad should go, merely giving significant assistance to those fighting against him, weakening his ability to use WMD again, or making him think twice about it, would have been reason enough to bomb. Better a relatively small response than no response at all. Better a small step in the right direction than staying on the sidelines. Better to give at least some hope to the forces of decency in Syria than to leave them hopeless. But he couldn’t bring himself to do anything.
To make matters worse, Obama allowed Vladimir Putin, the ally of Assad, to take the initiative. The leader of the free world went along with a 21st century tsar’s supposed plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Putin didn’t care about the weapons, of course. His goal was to keep Assad in power. I’m sure Obama didn’t really trust Putin, but he still made a mistake in deferring to him. We’ve seen the results of Obama’s error over the last seven and a half years: ISIS emerging as the most powerful alternative to Assad, instead of the Free Syrian Army; ISIS capturing Mosul, brutalizing Yazidis, and making Obama realize he couldn’t walk away from the Middle East after all; Russian troops landing in Syria; Russian planes bombing Syrian hospitals; massive refugee flows into Europe, empowering right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic; victory in America in 2016 by a man who called for a Muslim ban and publicly cozied up to Putin, who then spent four years working to undo Obama’s largely admirable legacy.
The final insult added to the injury of seeing a Democratic president, one whose election had sent spirits soaring around the world, refusing to make the wise and moral call in 2013, came in 2017. When an American president launched missiles in response to chemical attacks by Assad (he was never going to give them up), it was Trump. The man who whipped up Islamophobia, who envied Putin’s autocratic power rather than despising it, who made no pretense of caring about liberal democracy or human rights, who adopted America First as a slogan, who questioned the usefulness of NATO, who was so detestable in so many ways — this was the man who took action?! Trump made the right call, but my joy that he had made it was mixed with disgust and regret — it should have been Obama.
I have no idea whether Biden’s order to strike was a one-off, or the first small step on a long road of Democratic leaders relearning the value of force in the service of humane causes. I hope it’s the latter, but certainly many things can happen in the next four years, regardless of what Biden and those around him have in mind for U.S. foreign policy. Only time will tell.