Historian Rick Perlstein, in his political history of the mid 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, points out that at many points of Gerald Ford’s partial term as President, he faced a dilemma:
This new presidency [Ford’s] was evolving a theme: Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.
Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge, Page 309
When President Obama, fresh off the triumph of removing his nation from the quagmire in Iraq and giving the order for the successful assassination of Al Quaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, was confronted with the catastrophe of the Syrian civil War, he was faced with a similar choice: He could do his best to ignore the war and its atrocities and preserve his accomplishment of diminishing our war-fighting in the region, or he could react to a probable no-win situation with deepening involvement in a chaotic free-for-all without apparent good guys where our strikes against the Assad regime would likely strengthen Islamic State or vice versa. When he misspoke about a ‘red line’ being the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war, he was trapped. Defying most of the advice he received, and in the absence of support on the Hill, he decided to try to negotiate away Assad’s chemical weapons. As we can all see, that approach ultimately failed.
The galling thing is that if he had gone the other way and done what Trump is doing now, that would likely have failed, as well. IS was much stronger in Syria in 2014 than it is now, and any effective program of strikes against the regime would have strengthened Islamic State even more. Obama’s critics in both parties would have seized on the strategic error as evidence of his unfitness for office and military naiveté.
As it is, the consequences are likely to be open-ended. Syria is allied to both Iran and Russia, meaning that its retaliation could appear anywhere along the spectrum of escalation, from suicide bombings to nuclear war. Syria has retaliated against American interests for less in the past, from nightclub bombings to the destruction of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. The Syrian regime seems likely to have carried out the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, as well. The American government blamed Libya for those attacks, for what I believe to be political reasons. I’m convinced that Syria launched those attacks as part of a campaign to drive the United Sates out of the Middle East. Those acts were carried out in retaliation for far less serious offenses by the US against the regime than Trump’s attacks on Syria last night, and against a regime less desperate and less ruthless than the war-ravaged government led by Hafez’ younger son.
President Trump believed that decisive action would show him, despite all evidence to the contrary, to be a better President than Barack Obama. He might want to be careful what he wishes for.