Regardless of one’s view of how we handled events at the time—when we seemed to be on the verge of a punitive strike before congressional opposition and a diplomatic opening instead lead the administration to negotiate a deal we hoped might rid Syria of chemical weapons—it’s useful now to consider the complexities of what happened then, since many of the same ones will face today’s decisionmakers. In some cases, the situation facing the Trump administration is even more complex.
First, then as now, there are no perfect options in Syria. Much can be debated about who was right and who was wrong, who was naive and who was prescient. But the passage of time only makes the Syria options worse and the decisions harder.
Second, if there’s going to be a sustained effort—whether that means finding the long-term, elusive political solution; better protecting civilians through humanitarian corridors presumably backed up by air protection; or engineering the departure of Assad—collaborating with allies is going to be necessary, but inherently uncertain. In 2013, we believed we firmly had the United Kingdom and France by our side when we were on the cusp of military action. When Prime Minister David Cameron suddenly and unexpectedly rushed to force a vote in Parliament, and was promptly defeated, we not only lost a key partner but also saw political leaders at home suddenly remembering Congress’s hasty 2002 acquiescence in what became an unwise march to military action in Iraq. Demands thereafter surged for the Obama administration to seek congressional approval for even limited airstrikes. Thursday’s actions have surely raised expectations around the world—not just those of the remaining, beleaguered Syrian opposition but also those of America’s Gulf partners, from the Saudis to the Emiratis, who will now want to see what comes next.
Third, despite the applause they’re now hearing from a diverse group of lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senator John McCain, the administration can’t count on formal congressional support. As someone who spent more than a decade on the Hill, I must acknowledge regretfully that Congress today doesn’t have the ability to act quickly on an event like the chemical attack we’ve witnessed in Idlib, let alone a bigger strategic issue as complex as Syria. We learned this the hard way. In 2013, voices that had long demanded military action against Assad, like McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, didn’t bring with them any votes in favor of such action in the Senate. Reliably neoconservative voices like Senator Marco Rubio suddenly turned isolationist, unable to support a president of the opposite party. Others still felt the pounding hangover of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In arguing to a divided Congress both that we wouldn’t be entering another open-ended conflict in the Middle East, and that airstrikes would hold Assad accountable, Kerry was trying to assure lawmakers that we would be doing neither too much nor too little. Many in Congress will now argue that an airstrike is a tactic not a strategy, and they’re right—but neither is demanding a long-term strategy an excuse not to quickly punish a dictator for violating a 100-year-old prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Regardless, if Trump now decides to ramp up airstrikes against Assad, he should be prepared to do so—as President Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo, and as President Obama did against ISIS—without authorization from Congress. Many in Congress will privately be grateful.