For years, Trump had argued for a policy that focused American military might on ISIS and other terrorist groups currently fighting the Syrian government. However, following the use of chemical weapons (most likely by Assad’s forces), Trump decided to send a signal to the Syrian president and his Russian allies. The move garnered applause from pundits and even some Democratic officeholders but has also touched off a tortured debate among foreign policy thinkers in Washington, many of whom have long been pushing for more action against Bashar al-Assad but remain generally wary—to say the least—of Trump.
To discuss these issues, I spoke by phone with Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, and one of the people wrestling with these questions. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, he offered what he called “A Practical Guide for Avoiding Fallacies on Syria,” which took aim at several popular arguments for nonintervention. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Obama’s troubled Syria legacy, whether Trump can ever be trusted as commander in chief, and the proper role of the United States in the world.
Isaac Chotiner: You write in your piece that just because Trump is, shall we say, extremely imperfect doesn’t mean he can’t sometimes be right. But why is it wrong to say: “Hey, this guy has shown authoritarian tendencies and Islamophobic ones, and so I am going to oppose any military action he undertakes in the Islamic world, especially without congressional approval, unless there is an overwhelming and clear security risk to the United States”?
Shadi Hamid: I have been very outspoken about Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry. That bothers me on a very personal level, as an American Muslim. That said, I don’t really see the direct connection between that and the question of military intervention in Syria. It’s not clear how Trump’s problems with Islam would necessarily be a red line for those of us trying to figure out how we feel about things in the military arena.
The bottom line is that Trump is a very imperfect vessel. He is really in some ways the last person you would want prosecuting an intervention in a complex place like Syria. But we can’t be saying that for the next eight years. Sorry, the next four years. [Laughs.]
Please, this conversation is depressing enough.
Yeah. Syria is still going to be critical for the next four years. We could have hundreds of thousands of people being killed or injured in the coming years. If we say that we cannot conduct any military action against the Assad regime as long as Trump is our president, then it is going to be too late. In some sense it is already too late, considering that nearly half a million people have already died. The logical conclusion of this is that we can’t act militarily in complex situations anywhere if our standard is that we aren’t sure Trump can handle complex military situations. And therefore we will never support anything he does.
Look, I don’t want to heap too much praise on Trump. I don’t want to go over the top and say, “Trump is finally coming into his own.”
Please don’t say that.
But I do think there is something encouraging about a president who is able to shift course based on changing facts on the ground. So when Trump was saying in his initial statement after the chemical weapons attack that he is flexible and willing to change his position because he has been moved by these terrible pictures, a lot of people poked fun at him for flip-flopping. But I preferred that to the alternative because the alternative to me is someone who stays stubborn and immoveable on the subject of the Assad regime. I don’t want Trump to stay sympathetic to the Assad regime. Now finally he is less sympathetic, and he really does seem, in his kind of Trumpist gut-instinct way, to have been moved by these images.
He’s still banning refugees from coming here. I am not sure how moved he is.
We don’t know what’s in his heart, but the reporting—
We have some idea.
Yeah, but according to most of the reporting I’ve seen, he does seem to have been moved by those images. That doesn’t mean there is moral consistency because obviously there are other things that should have aroused the same anger and indignation from Trump. But that’s what he saw, and it had an effect on him.
The argument isn’t that Trump should be opposed out of partisanship but that the practical result of having Trump do something (as opposed to a more conventional American president) is likely to be different. He doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Yeah, I am not really giving him the benefit of the doubt. As long as he doesn’t do more on Syria, I am going to be critical. I don’t think a one-off, punitive strike is the right thing. It’s a start. It’s a step in the right direction for those who have long felt that Assad was the primary problem in Syria. I haven’t been a full-throated enthusiast about these strikes. We shouldn’t blow this out of proportion, and it is still a limited action. But for me the fact that Trump is our democratically elected president means a lot. He does have a mandate to do what presidents usually do, and I am not willing to say that because he is Trump, we have to apply a completely different standard when we are judging the appropriateness of certain military action.
One part of that is that Trump isn’t very concerned about policy details, so it’s actually the people around him who are going to be filling those policy gaps and actually guiding the specifics of any anti-Assad strategy going forward. And there are people around Trump who do have better instincts. People like [National Security Adviser H.R.] McMaster and [Defense Secretary James] Mattis. And the fact that Trump has been willing to bring on senior national security officials who don’t necessarily share his instincts about the world has also been encouraging. Now it could be because—
The Breitbart staff isn’t big enough to fill the whole national security bureaucracy?
[Laughs.] Well, obviously that wing is extremely troubling. But the fact that he brought on a national security adviser who disagrees with him on one of his overarching campaign planks, which was saying radical Islamic terrorism—that suggests a kind of openness to listening to perspectives which wouldn’t come naturally to him. Now, that could be the result of incoherence or lack of attention to policy detail, but it’s hard for me to see Obama bringing on a top national security aide who disagreed with him on something that central, right?
Hillary disagreed with Obama on the Iraq war.
I mean disagreed in terms of issues going forward. In the past perhaps Obama would, but in terms of things going forward?
What about the fact that he doesn’t have congressional approval and he has shown autocratic tendencies? Is that a dangerous precedent?
I think the fact that these were just, at least for now, one-off strikes, I don’t think requires congressional approval. And for that matter Congress has shown very little interest in playing more of a role on something like this. And let’s remember that Obama himself wasn’t initially going to go to Congress for the potential response to the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks. It was only at the 11th hour that Obama on the way out tried to give it to Congress for it to die a slow death. If Obama didn’t see it as necessary, I don’t see why we would require Trump to do so. That would seem to be applying different standards to different presidents. But obviously if it becomes a more long-term engagement, that conversation should be revisited.
Another one of your arguments is that nonintervention is also dangerous, and so the burden of proof shouldn’t entirely be on people who want to intervene in a given case. When it comes to America and the Middle East and our history, are those two things really equal?
I should note that I have a different perspective on that record, in the sense that I don’t consider the NATO intervention in Libya to have been a failure, and then there is Kuwait, which people never bring up. That, I think most of us would agree, was successful and prevented a dictator from taking over an entire other country. And then there was Bosnia and Kosovo. The record is mixed, but Iraq tends to loom large and dominate everything else.
But in terms of Syria specifically, I think the burden of proof has to be on those who have advocated a failed strategy for more than five years. We have tried that way. We tried to give that approach the benefit of the doubt. But if something fails consistently for five years, don’t the proponents of that policy have the responsibility to reckon with their own record and at least acknowledge that they might have gotten this wrong? And if they are essentially telling us to stay the course with a destructive strategy that has failed with any reasonable standard, then why should we accept that?
I think the argument would be that we can’t solve the issues there. So if we hadn’t gone into Iraq, yes Saddam Hussein would have killed more people and done more bad things, but the argument is that, practically speaking, maybe we just simply can’t do anything about that.
This is one of the fundamental divides between the pro- and anti-interventionists on Syria. Some version of this disagreement has been repeating itself since 2012. When anti-interventionists are arguing that we can’t do anything, that premise seems suspect. How do they know that when we haven’t tried other approaches? How can they be so sure when they haven’t switched their strategy according to changing facts on the ground? Take Thursday night’s strikes, which were obviously pretty limited. We had people who were warning that even going slightly in this direction would risk a confrontation with Russia. But what we find out is that Russia is not necessarily going to retaliate right away. The assumptions of worst case scenarios don’t necessarily hold up.
It’s also different from Iraq because in Iraq in 2003 there wasn’t an ongoing mass slaughter. There’s also a U.N.-approved norm of Responsibility to Protect. It’s not like people are making up a norm that countries should step in when countries are massacring their own people. That is something that the United States inevitably has to bear some responsibility for, especially if it is happening in a strategically vital country like Syria.
How big a mark do you think Syria is on Obama’s record?
I think Syria is Obama’s Iraq. For me, and I get criticized for this a little bit, I tend to see the spillover effects of Syria to be very far-reaching. It isn’t just 500,000 people killed. In an ideal world that would have been enough to spur the international community to action. But the fact is that the spillover destabilized much of the Middle East and threatened Europe’s very stability in terms of large refugee inflows, which have become a defining issue in the rise of far-right populists. Trump in our own campaign was able to benefit from the general sense of insecurity people had because of the instability coming from Syria and Muslim refugees affected our own domestic politics. So I think this was an inability to understand that what happens in Syria will inevitably come back to haunt us, and I do think it is a big part of Obama’s legacy and quite frankly a moral stain.
We talked earlier about how Trump doesn’t seem to like Muslims; Obama seemed to have more of a humanitarian instinct when it came to Muslims, but at the same time he was comfortable seeing August 2013 as his moment of liberation, when for Syrians it was the turning point that condemned many of them to ongoing suffering and death. You see this discrepancy between intention and results. Trump could be the opposite. He doesn’t seem to care much about Muslims, but he was willing to do more than Obama was, at least in the case of Syria.
When you say “do more,” Obama was willing to take in some refugees. All Trump has done is launch some missiles. I don’t want to defend Obama’s Syria policies, but we don’t want a paradigm where “doing something” must mean launching missiles.
Exactly, which is why I am not a proponent of just launching missiles. Any strikes should be tied to a broader strategic vision in Syria that is really focused on ending the civil war and forcing Assad to make major compromises to the opposition. Another legacy of the Obama years is that military action is a separate track from diplomacy. I never understood why people would accept that without questioning it when historically a threat of coercive action would oftentimes spur diplomacy because dictators without moral qualms won’t do the right thing on their own. There has to be a threat to their own survival. This idea that any initial action will inevitably lead to a great power confrontation with Russia: I think those ideas were oftentimes put forward by senior Obama officials. And I don’t know if they really believed them; maybe they just came to believe them or thought they were effective political arguments. I don’t know.
You sound like you want to push me on this, so go ahead.
Look, the moral component here is really important for me. We talk a lot in the Trump era about what it means to be American. What is our moral compass as a people? I think we focus a lot on domestic policy. Do we want to be a nation that doesn’t guarantee health care for its citizens? But I think we have to apply those same standards to foreign policy. Do we want to be a national that has little to nothing to say or do about mass slaughter and genocide?
In theory, of course; in practice, it’s messier. And America can make life better for people around the world in all sorts of ways that don’t involve missile strikes. And those things are sometimes forgotten.
What do you have in mind specifically?
Taking in refugees, foreign aid, things like that.
I sympathize with this alternative approach, like focusing on refugees. I wish that was the case. But we also have to talk about what is realistic in policy terms. It is inconceivable to imagine the Trump administration going beyond Obama’s refugee totals.
For me the fall of Aleppo, which was pretty recent, a few months ago, that to me captured the immorality of Obama’s Syria policy. That was one of our last chances to do the right thing and rethink our strategy and say that there must be a red line when it comes to hundreds of thousands of people killed. And I think one of Obama’s legacies will be an erosion of that norm. You are going to have a big chunk of the American electorate, including most of the left, that will look at mass slaughter a lot and think there isn’t a lot we can do. That America cannot play a constructive role. It goes back to this idea of “do no harm.” It’s still something I hear so much from people. “Let’s not make it worse,” as if not launching strikes will make it better. Why do we assume that? So I think Obama has essentially inserted these arguments and people are tied to that approach. We have to look back at his legacy and be honest about the results. At least the one thing all of us should be able to agree on is that his Syria policy was not a success. If we can start from that, we should at least be able to have a conversation about what the alternatives are.