Remember when flip-flopping was considered just about the worst thing a politician could do? Now we call it evolving, and we have moved beyond the nonsense posture that it’s better to be steadfast in error than flexible enough to correct course, especially as new facts come to light.
President Donald Trump’s evolution on Syria’s criminal president, Bashar al-Assad, did happen head-snappingly fast. Just days before Assad used nerve gas on children, our ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that removing him from office wasn’t our goal. “You pick and choose your battles,’’ she told reporters on March 30, “and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” That same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Syrians should pick their own leader — as if 400,000 of them had not died since 2011 in a civil war over that question.
The unfortunate perception that we were mellowing on Assad may even have emboldened his use of sarin. Still, Trump was right to answer the attack, especially in such a proportional way. We just marked the centennial of a war in which chemical weapons proved so deadly that the world outlawed their use, and this is no time to go back on what we learned then at such a horrific cost.
Now our message is that Russia, where Tillerson touched down on Tuesday, must choose between us and the Assad regime. But what is our overall strategy in Syria, where there aren’t two warring factions but many, and even our “moderate” allies sometimes do business with Islamic State terrorists?
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In general, we believe the U.S. should be more involved in humanitarian intervention rather than less. Which means that Trump was right to act but that he also needs to put our action in context and tell the American public where we go from here. While we wait, Eric Trump has said that his sister Ivanka influenced their father’s decision to bomb the Syrian airfield from which chemical weapons were dispatched. He also said that proves his father and Russian President Vladimir Putin aren’t in cahoots; was that a factor in the decision?
Trump’s flailing spokesman, Sean Spicer, who on Tuesday made the inexcusable mistake of claiming that “Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” is not helping. He incorrectly posited even after we answered the chemical attack that we couldn’t call for Assad’s ouster because “We would look … rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria.”
What’s worse than silly is that neither then-President Barack Obama nor Trump has offered a plan to make life better for suffering Syrians. To go in with troops would be to repeat our mistake in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein, too, had used chemical weapons. But to cut diplomacy and aid right now, as Trump wants to do, would be disastrous. First, the president should square his correct impulse to stand up for the “beautiful babies” he saw gasping and foaming at the mouth, and his determination to ban Syrian refugees. They are the same people, Mr. President. And they do deserve our help.