Opinion Columns & Blogs

Thank Trump for enforcing Obama’s ‘red line’ in Syria

Samantha Power should send a thank-you note to Donald Trump. Power made her reputation as the author of “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” It persuasively argued that the U.S. has a special responsibility to protect potential victims of genocide.

Barack Obama liked the book so much, he made Power his foreign policy tutor when he was still a senator. He brought her to his White House after he won the presidency and made her his ambassador to the United Nations in his second term.

In a cruel irony, Power’s warnings were ignored by her former pupil when Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. He never enforced the “red line” he articulated in 2012, on chemical weapons in Syria.

But on Thursday, Trump did. He ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles to be launched at the al-Shayrat airfield in Syria, the base from where Syria launched a horrific sarin gas attack earlier last week.

In the 1990s this kind of thing was known as “cruise missile diplomacy.” After al-Qaida brought down two U.S. embassies in Africa, Clinton launched missiles at training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. He launched the missiles against Saddam Hussein after the dictator kicked out weapons inspectors. By the end of that decade, and especially after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, this tactic became an emblem for ineffective half-measures.

After eight years of Obama, cruise-missile diplomacy looks far more muscular.

Obama is not primarily responsible for the people Assad and his enablers – Russia and Iran – have killed and displaced. But his failure to enforce his warning on chemical weapons weakened the international system.

Norms like the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons are not self-enforcing. They require a super power like America to deter other dictators from future violations. When the U.S. abdicates its responsibility to make good on its red line on chemical weapons, it invites mischief from rogues all over the world.

The fact that Trump responded so quickly to President Bashar al-Assad’s latest atrocity is a good first step in restoring deterrence. But it will take more than cruise-missile diplomacy to restore the international order that has been collapsing in the Obama years. Trump should plan for something bigger.

At this point, it would be good for Trump to press his national security team for a plan to destroy Assad’s Air Force entirely. He uses his aircraft to drop chlorine bombs and sarin, like he did last week, and he has dropped barrel bombs that have destroyed so much of his country since 2011. The world will be a better place with these weapons destroyed.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.