In August 2013, there was a gas attack in Ghouta, Syria. The attack, which was attributed to the Syrian government by everyone except President Assad and his Russian allies, killed hundreds of people and outraged the international community. A consensus arose in the West: Something had to be done.
The urgency was elevated by Obama’s own statement, in 2012, that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that would demand American action. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry reacted accordingly in 2013, with a bellicose speech the day after the Ghouta attack. But Obama ended up following a different path, even as critics argued he was destroying U.S. credibility by opting not to intervene. Instead, he worked with Russian officials to cut a deal in which Assad would surrender his chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the U.S. avoided another open-ended, costly, bloody Middle Eastern war.
In an extensive piece last year trying to hash out what exactly President Obama’s overarching approach to foreign policy was, my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg examined the incident in detail. “I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told Goldberg. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”