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Former Obama Adviser Says Chemical Weapons Attack In Syria Must Have Consequences

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So in the aftermath of this apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria, what should the U.S. do? Well, President Trump's predecessor faced that same question. President Obama had drawn a red line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.

KELLY: Obama addressing the nation there in September, 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: After careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.

KELLY: But the U.S. didn't strike. Instead, the Obama administration kicked the decision to Congress. While a deal was made to remove some chemical weapons from Syria, no military strikes were ever taken. Philip Gordon was working at the Obama White House then as the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and the Gulf. He says he regrets that decision.

PHILIP GORDON: At the time, I thought we should act, and that remains my view now. I totally understood why the president felt he would be stronger with congressional backing. But I also thought it was important - having issued a red line and made clear that the United States wouldn't tolerate Syrian use of chemical weapons killing a thousand people - that it was important to act.

KELLY: If you were back on the National Security Council today, what would your counsel be?

GORDON: My counsel would be to undertake military strikes that punish and deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons in the way that they just did. I would be very clear that I'm not going to war in Syria, that my mission is not to reopen this question of regime change and become the air force of the opposition until Assad comes to the table or gives up power. That's a whole different set of missions and issues that I think is beyond what is reasonable for the United States to undertake.

KELLY: But airstrikes clearly targeted to punish for this apparent use of chemical weapons.

GORDON: That's right. Just very clear - we have said you cannot use chemical weapons, and you will pay a price if you do. And if you do it again, you'll pay another price.

KELLY: The Trump administration did retaliate for a similar attack last year. President Trump just about a year ago ordered airstrikes against Syria for another apparent use of chemical weapons, and yet here we are a year later. What's the takeaway there - that that airstrike last year didn't work - didn't deter Assad from using chemical weapons again?

GORDON: I don't think we know that. I mean, as you say, it has been a year. The takeaway is clearly that you can't expect that one limited airstrike on one airfield is going to resolve this problem for all time. And you have to understand that even if we undertake strikes this time, we might have to again. I don't think anyone could promise that, you know, it all ends if we just show how tough we are. But I think we can say, we are going to make you pay a price for doing this. And if you choose to use chemical weapons again in the same way, we'll do it again.

KELLY: How to square what may seem to some people like a disconnect between President Trump making very clear he wants out of Syria; he's done? He's telegraphed that clearly. He would like to bring U.S. troops home - on the other hand saying there has to be a big price to pay for this apparent chemical attack and raising the specter of yet more military engagement in Syria.

GORDON: Yeah, those two things don't have to be incompatible. Indeed, I think there's a real scenario where President Trump does both of those things at the same time. That is to say, pull out our troops 'cause he doesn't want to be in a mess on the ground and spending money and getting involved in a civil war but also, you know, bombing from far away, which is lower cost and lower risk. Indeed, you could even argue that if we're going to start undertaking airstrikes in Syria, that you could make a case you don't want troops on the ground. That would be vulnerable and could drag you in. So there's, like I say, a real chance that that's where we end up - doing the airstrikes but also pulling out on the ground at the same time.

KELLY: Last thing - I should just note - today is day one on the job for President Trump's new national security adviser John Bolton. What is your sense of where he lands on what to do about Syria?

GORDON: Yeah, one reason I think it's highly likely that the United States is going to act militarily here - it's not just because I and others think it's the right thing to do. But with John Bolton starting this week in the White House, to have the president warn on Twitter that there's a big price to pay and having made clear that we're not going to tolerate use of weapons of mass destruction and wanting to signal that the administration wants to stand up to Iran - after all that, to not act in Bolton's first week on the job would really undermine everything the administration is trying to do about showing that it's tough and willing to stand up to adversaries. So I think Bolton will be arguing strongly for a military response. And I think that the president is going to be very supportive of doing that.

KELLY: Thanks very much.

GORDON: Nice to talk to you. Thank you.

KELLY: That's Philip Gordon, a veteran of the Obama National Security Council - now at the Council on Foreign Relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.