Goldberg: In Washington, we do seem to be plagued with this, “If only….” paradigm.
Gordon: Look, in Syria, too, the flaw, or weakness, in our Syria policy is seen to be a kind of inaction, or non-intervention—to just suggest that had we intervened, we could have avoided all of this. In your piece, you quote the prime minister of France, who says, “Imagine what would have happened had we intervened early.” Well, indeed, let’s do that. And I suspect we would have seen the same counter-escalation by the regime, Russia, and Iran that we’ve been seeing for five years—
Goldberg: But wait, you do think the president should have struck Syria in August 2013, over the red-line chemical-weapons issue?
Gordon: That’s a separate issue. The president said in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons was a red line for us. I think this threat actually worked for a time. This was in Assad’s mind, and it led him not to use chemical weapons, at least on a large scale, for almost a year. So sometimes there’s utility in putting down a marker like that.
Goldberg: But then Assad went big in his use of sarin gas. A lot of people in the White House agree with the president now that he was right not to go, not to launch a strike.
Gordon: Well, I thought at the time that it was important to act, because if not we’d pay a price. I very much share the president’s broad view on credibility, and he was articulate with you about the reasons you don’t bomb, because you can make a fetish of it, and Vietnam is the best example. And look, I’m someone who started to buck the trend on Syria early in the system and was told that we’d lose our credibility if we didn’t act—
Goldberg: “Buck the trend,” meaning looking for a way to minimize U.S. exposure to the Syria conflict?
Gordon: Meaning, looking for a way to de-escalate the war, even without achieving the desired objective of regime change in Syria. My view was that while achieving a comprehensive political transition in Syria was a noble goal, we were not succeeding and we were unlikely to succeed and therefore the costs of pursuing that goal—dead people, refugees, destabilizing neighbors, radicalization, instability in Europe—were becoming far greater than the costs of de-escalation. But I was always told that our credibility was at stake, and that we couldn’t stop halfway. And I have to admit, the Vietnam analogy comes up. It would be like in 1967 saying, “I don’t think we are achieving our goal here. And there are real costs to pursuing it so let’s reconsider.” And being told, “Look, we’re out there, the president said, you know, our credibility is at stake, our allies are counting on us, and we can’t do anything but escalate.”
Goldberg: But you still believe a limited strike would have been the right thing to do?
Gordon: I believed it, and I said so at the time. And this is what I thought the president thought as well. The president made clear that the regime’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013 was an example of what he meant when he warned against CW use. And remember, he said in the Rose Garden, even after he decided to go to Congress, right, he said—here’s the quote, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced? Make no mistake—this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”