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"I think it was completely justified" — a former Obama Pentagon official on Trump's Syria attack

Why Trump’s attack may have been justified but could still backfire.

syrian rebel aleppo
A Syrian rebel fighter in Aleppo. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)
(Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday night, President Trump fired 59 cruise missiles into Syria. It was a limited attack, aimed at a single airbase. We know that the strike was a response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s gas attack on his own people Tuesday. We don’t know what Trump’s long-term strategy for Syria is: Was this a one-off attack? Part of a plan to remove Assad from power? Something else?

This interview is about the strategic wisdom of Trump’s attack, the possible motivations behind it, and what to look for in the days ahead. My interviewee is Derek Chollet, who served from 2012 to 2015 as an assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, advising Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel.

Although the Obama administration chose not to attack Syria in response to Assad’s 2013 gas attack, Chollet advocated for it at the time. He’s currently vice president and senior adviser for security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

Was it a good idea to lob 59 cruise missiles into Syria last night?

Derek Chollet

I think it was completely justified. Even Hillary Clinton has indicated that she would have done the same thing, and I believe, in this context, Obama would as well. Given what happened, yet another chemical weapons attack, and given that we have high confidence that it was carried out by the Syrian military, this was an entirely appropriate response.

Sean Illing

Obama decided against military action in 2013 when Assad gassed his own people. You say the context is different today — how so?

Derek Chollet

Four years ago, we were dealing with a situation in which we had 1300 tons of chemical weapons in Syria. Our concern, in contemplating strikes, was that we weren't going to take out all of those weapons, and so the question was: What would happen next with those weapon materials? Escalation was an obvious concern, as was the fear that we'd lose control over all those materials, which were spread out over 30 or 40 sites.

Today, nearly all of those chemical weapons are gone, and so the risks are significantly reduced.

Sean Illing

What’s the big question we should be asking right now in terms of understanding this decision?

Derek Chollet

The big question is, is this just a counterpunch? Trump is a well-known counterpuncher; if he gets punched, he punches back. Is this just a one-off, discrete use of force to respond to a specific thing in order to punish and deter, or is this a shift to a completely different approach to dealing with Assad and Syria?

Sean Illing

Well, this is part of what’s so confusing about this decision. Earlier this week, Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that Syrians should determine Assad’s future. But then, just a day or two later, they launch a military strike and gesture toward regime change. Are you alarmed by the capricious, seemingly unconsidered nature of this decision?

Derek Chollet

No, not yet. I'm not convinced that they've actually moved to regime change. I don't know, but this feels more like [Bill] Clinton's 1993 decision to bomb Baghdad. He sent 29 cruise missiles, the same weapon we used last night, to take out several targets in downtown Baghdad to punish to Saddam Hussein for his attempt to assassinate George H.W. Bush earlier that year in Kuwait. It was a discrete use of force, a quick punch in the face, to put Hussein on notice. My sense is that Trump tried to do something similar here with Assad.

Sean Illing

But in doing that, he’s left himself vulnerable to the logic of escalation.

Derek Chollet

That’s absolutely true. There will be tremendous pressure on Trump now, if the Syrian war rages on, as it almost certainly will, to continue to do more. This is what Obama was always afraid of, this logic of escalation, and it's really hard to escape that logic once you go down this road.

At this point, I still have my doubts that this represents a dramatic change in administration policy. There's no reason, at this point, to think that Trump has any intention of invading or occupying Syria.

Sean Illing

Every time we’re confronted with a foreign policy challenge like this, I’m frustrated by how dishonest we are about how limited our options are. There are limits to what American power can accomplish, and we seem incapable of learning that lesson. This strike, for example, is unlikely to materially impact anything on the ground in Syria, so what do we think we’re going to accomplish?

I have mixed feelings about the decision, but it’s not clear to me what good it will do if we’re not willing to escalate further, and even then we’re unlikely to fundamentally improve the situation.

Derek Chollet

I take your point, but we have to be clear about the intent here. If the intent is not to end the civil war or remove Assad but rather to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again, it absolutely could succeed. This was part of my frustration with Obama's "red line" remark. What people failed to recognize is that that ultimately led to the peaceful removal, with the help of Russia, of 1300 tons of chemical weapons, which I don't think could have been accomplished with the use of force.

This situation is different, but if this isolated attack deters Assad in the future, it's a success, even if it does nothing to end the broader conflict.

Sean Illing

Even if we grant that this low-level strike was strategically sound, do you have any confidence that Trump — and his administration — can manage this situation as it unfolds?

Derek Chollet

I'm deeply worried. Obviously, the concerns about escalation are serious. We don't know what Assad will do. We don't know what Russia will do. We don't know what Iran will do. The Trump team is not exactly a tightly run operation, so yeah, I'm concerned.

This is a high-risk situation, and very little about this administration inspires confidence. Again, my sense is that the intent here was limited in scope, akin to what Clinton did in Iraq in 1993. But, as we've learned, any time you use military force, particularly in the Middle East, it rarely turns out as you intended.

Sean Illing

I think Obama failed to foresee how Russia and Iran would respond to America arming the Syrian opposition forces. Do you think Trump might be underestimating the response here?

Derek Chollet

I don't know. We'll just have to see how Russia responds. They may calculate that this does not mean a total shift in the US approach to Assad and Syria, and instead is just a limited one-time strike solely as a response to the chemical weapons attack. If so, they'll do some things to publicly register their displeasure but, ultimately, will let it slide.

Sean Illing

What should we look for in the coming days in terms of trying to gauge where this situation is heading?

Derek Chollet

I think a key moment could happen today if Trump and the Chinese president speak publicly at the end of their summit. Trump will surely get asked if this attack signals a broader change in policy or if it's just a one-off attack. How he answers that will go a long way in determining where we're heading. So far there have been mixed signals coming out of the administration, and so what he says today, immediately after this strike, should provide some clarity.

Sean Illing

Will it, though? Trump appears to be as confused as we are trying to discern what he actually believes. A statement he gives today could easily be contradicted tomorrow.

Derek Chollet

Look, I don't think they thought this through. This is an example of what you were asking earlier. This seems like a counterpunch to me, not a strategic shift. This is more checkers than chess; it's Trump saying if you do X, we'll do Y.

Sean Illing

Well, I’d prefer that the man with his hand on the lever be playing chess...

Derek Chollet

But that really is the question here: Was this a checkers move or a chess move?

Sean Illing

I guess we’ll find out.

Derek Chollet

Indeed.