Can Trump Refrain from Repeating His Predecessor's Mistakes in Syria?

Flight operations on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

The crisis in Syria isn't a Republican or Democrat problem; it is a moral failing that places America on the wrong side of history.

The case of the president’s self-inflicted wound from his self-imposed red line provides a rather illustrative example of being outmaneuvered. In 2013, President Obama ignored the wishes of most of his staff and turned to Moscow to remove Assad’s chemical weapons. He then turned to the American people and sold the plan as an ingenious victory of diplomacy, which he hailed soon after in a speech at West Point with the doctrinaire phrase, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” In a 2016 interview he described that decision as a source of deep satisfaction for him. “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. It was “as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

The lifeline Putin offered, however, turned out to be the Russian reins of a Trojan horse that only required a dash of strategic patience to spring. At the same time, as the United States gave up leverage to Iran in the nuclear negotiations, Russia profited from the process. They made sure the final agreement provided its newly wealthy Persian client with the freedom to purchase an unending colorful range of Russian weapons systems. With the deal finalized, Putin waited two months before springing forth from the Trojan horse into the Syrian fray with a massive military buildup in September 2015.

Meanwhile, Assad continues to use chlorine gas as a weapon against his people and Iran has learned that it can practice its own strategic patience. Iran knows it can enhance its regional position while improving its ballistic missiles and nuclear centrifuges and then spring forth in around a decade when the deal expires as a fully weaponized nuclear state with an industrial-sized program. And all Israel got was a lousy T-shirt.

Some analysts have long argued that the most coherent interpretation of the previous administration’s behavior is that Barack Obama was committed to boosting the Iranians as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. That case is most compellingly made by Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as well as Lee Smith and Michael Doran, both senior fellows at the Hudson Institute.

Doran, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and former senior director of the National Security Council, further argued that Russia’s newly enhanced regional position was part and parcel of President Obama’s broader strategy. In his published response to Doran, Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama from 2009–2011, who served in senior positions related to the Middle East for several U.S administrations, disagreed with Doran’s premise but largely supported his conclusions. That is to say, whether by design or by accident, the result of President Obama’s eight-year overcorrection in foreign policy is the dramatically enhanced influence and position of both Russia and Iran, and the diminished standing of the United States and its allies.

Foreign Policy at a Crossroad

Now, in the early months of his presidency, Donald Trump finds himself at a fork in the road in terms of foreign policy. When it comes to Syria, there are no good options available today. What’s left to ponder recalls a scene from the Hollywood blockbuster, Argo, where CIA agents Tony Mendez and Jack O’Donnell (played by Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston) bring their rescue plan to CIA director Stansfield Turner. Unconvinced, he asks, “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” to which O’Donnell replies emphatically, “This is the best bad idea we have sir.” As Tony Mendez understood at the time, “There are only bad options; it’s about finding the best one.”