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Former National Security Council Coordinator Reflects On Obama's Syria Policy


Now, some of the debate about Syria sounds familiar to you. That's because it is. The questions facing the global community about how to confront the Syrian conflict have been on the table for years now. Back in 2013 during the Obama administration, there was an even larger chemical attack on a town that killed several hundred people. It's alleged that the Assad regime is to blame for that as well.

And yet, the U.S. did not mount a military response. To hear more about that and what if anything has changed, we wanted to speak with someone involved in those policy discussions. So we called Philip Gordon. He was a special assistant to the president and national security council coordinator for the Middle East from 2013 to 2015. His portfolio included Syria.

Now he's a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington studios as well. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

PHILIP GORDON: Nice to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, as, of course, you know, President Obama has taken a lot of flak for not taking a harder line against the Assad regime particularly in response to the chemical weapons attack. Now, it's been reported that a mission was planned and then pulled back, so the president could seek approval from Congress which didn't support an attack - important to remember that.

So what was the driving factor there? Was it that the president really felt that the letter of the law required that he go to Congress? Did he feel he needed the political cover? Can you take us back to that?

GORDON: Sure. I mean, to put it into context, remember that he had famously declared this red line one year before when he said if I see them using chemical weapons, that will change the way I think about Syria. And for that entire year, you know, we had reports of minor use of chemical weapons, reported used, but never anything big. And then in August 2013, there was something big. And the Syrians used chemical weapons that killed more than a thousand people. And what the president said was that's what I meant, and he ordered the military to start preparing a response because he was concerned, as we all were, that failing to do something would essentially say you can use chemical weapons as much as you like.

So he actually did order those military plans. They were all ready to go, and the president went to Congress, not because he thought he needed legal authority - thought he had that - but he needed legitimacy and support because his concern was - and this is relevant for where we are today - his concern was we can take out some airplanes and airstrips and so on. But what happens after that? What if they use it again or we have to do it again? And then we lose a plane and then we kill civilians? It gets complicated when you intervene in the Middle East. And so he wanted democratic legitimacy backing. He went to Congress, and he didn't get it.

MARTIN: It's been reported now that you continue to believe that that was a mistake then, and it remains a mistake now.

GORDON: I thought it was important to act. Having declared as the United States that there was a red line and there would be consequences for violating it, it was important to follow up for this specific reason. Assad was testing us, not just for himself, but the very principle of chemical weapons use. And if we said then - I feel the same way about this case now - if we said then, OK, you know, we didn't want you to use chemical weapons, but we're really not prepared to do anything about it, the message would be not only that was OK then, but it's OK next week. It's OK the week after that. It's OK in a neighboring country.

And that's just something - there's been 100-year norm that it has really not been acceptable to use chemical weapons. Now, I don't think we could have solved the Syrian civil war by intervening, and that's what we have to be careful about now. But to very precisely say, no, I'm sorry, we're just not going to let you do that. I thought that was important then. I think it's important now.

MARTIN: But what does this mean going forward? I mean, do you think you understand what the U.S. policy is now? What - of course, now here I'm asking for an opinion from you about what do you think the U.S. policy should be going forward?

GORDON: The stated U.S. policy is along the lines of what I just said to deter any use of chemical weapons, to degrade their ability to do so, but more importantly to say that there's going to be cost. And I'm comfortable with that. My concern is what could happen next? And I have to admit I, like many, are trying to figure out how this president who for six years was very strongly against any intervention in Syria said the red line was dumb, opposed Obama's use of force in 2013, warned about World War III if we intervened.

Suddenly - and he only last week was saying we could live with Assad. And then suddenly after this incident is saying we can't tolerate this, ordering military strikes, completely out of character. So I'm worried that there's no consistency here, and there's no strategy. It was an emotional reaction or even one for political reasons that as guideline for the future - so if casualties alone lead us to intervene militarily, what if - and there are reports that this is already happening - what if Assad bombs the same areas next week? Do we then intervene again? And then again and again and again?

And so I think the president does need to tell us was this narrowly to stop chemical weapons in which case I think it can be supported or are we jumping on a slippery slope and going to get involved in the war in Syria in which case I think there are real concerns.

MARTIN: Well, we only have about a minute left, and so obviously we're only just scratching the surface here of all the relevant and important issues. So the question I would have for you is, perhaps, if the president doesn't feel he needs that because his party controls both houses of Congress as well as the White House, and he feels that that conveys all the legitimacy that he needs sort of going forward - I want to ask you about citizens. How do you want citizens to evaluate the next steps here?

GORDON: The problem with not having support from Congress and thereby by citizens if - is if and when something goes wrong. You know, I'm a little bit concerned about all the cheerleading that has gone on as if somehow, you know, Donald Trump is now Winston Churchill, and everybody in the region is going to salute and do whatever the United States wants.

We're only 24 hours into this. If something goes wrong next week, and he doesn't have domestic or congressional support, that's when the problems come.

MARTIN: That was Philip Gordon. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region under President Obama. He joined us here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GORDON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.

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