The Trump Administration and the Déjà Vu of Middle East Chemical Warfare by Drew H. Kinney
The brutal assault on Syrian civilians has happened before. American support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War is an important historical analogue.
Whether the devastating chemical slaughter was merely an attack on a chemical depot with disregard for the human consequences, or a deliberate attack by Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, the United States bears some responsibility.
The burden of the attack falls on the Trump administration’s shoulders. Certainly, one could argue former president Barack Obama’s prevarication the last time Assad used nerve gas on civilians was for better or worse vis-à-vis US national security, as Jeffrey Goldberg demonstrated in his popular Atlantic article.
This situation is different in two ways. First, the Obama administration’s policy was to remove Assad, but the Trump administration reversed that line only days before the chemical attack. Second, when Assad deployed the nerve gas the Trump administration struck his forces in Syria.
The Obama administration was publicly committed to preventing such a heinous attack (before it happened) and to removing a brutal dictator from power. It also sought a settlement with Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin through which Syria would give up its remaining chemical weapons.
The Trump administration publicly praises dictators, and only last week reversed Obama’s policy on Syria by supporting Assad’s continued reign. Add to that Trump’s support for Vladimir Putin, bizarre defense of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and last week’s gushing praise of Egypt’s brutal military dictator General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi.
This isn’t all that new. The United States was cozy with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. This relationship was so tight that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) aided Hussein’s chemical warfare on Iranian forces. While there was some outcry when Saddam turned those weapons around and killed 5,000 Kurdish Iraqis, the international community’s response was in fact fairly soft.
That’s the second difference in this case. The international community is in an uproar, and the Trump administration has responded strongly at the United Nations. Donald Trump appeared on the White House lawn seeming personally moved by the heinous assault on Syrian men, women, and children. The American envoy to the UN, represented by Nikki Haley, claimed the US might take unilateral action in Syria.
The Trump administration backed its words up. In the evening of April 6th, the US Navy launched 59 missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Air Base from the Mediterranean.
The United States emboldened Assad when it reversed course to support his continued reign last week, but apparently President Trump really does draw a line in the sand when it comes to chemical attacks.
Drew H. Kinney is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.