Former President Barack Obama revealed that his August 2013 decision not to bomb Syria after a massive chemical-weapons attack near Damascus killed nearly 1,500 people “required the most political courage.”
Obama made the comments during an interview after receiving the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award last week.
Obama acknowledged in the interview that having Syria destroy its chemical weapons stock “was an imperfect solution,” because in hindsight some weapons remained. Obama added that “99% of huge chemical weapons stockpiled were removed without us having to fire a shot.”
He told interviewer Jack Schlossberg, grandson of President John F. Kennedy, “as president … you generally get praised for taking military action, and you’re often criticized for not doing so.”
Obama sought authorization from Congress in 2013 for a military response to the chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad, having previously described chemical weapons use as a “red line” that would trigger US action if crossed. Lawmakers at the time were mostly opposed to military intervention and Obama ultimately pulled back.
President Donald Trump was faced with a similar scenario in April 2017 after Assad launched another chemical weapons attack on his own people. When Trump chose to fire 59 missiles at Assad’s Shayrat airfield in retaliation, he received cautious support from a bipartisan group of lawmakers and sharp criticism from others.
Incidentally, Hillary Clinton had called for airstrikes on Syria hours before Trump took military action, saying “I really believe that we should have, and still should, take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.”
Clinton also said Obama “should have been more willing to confront Assad” over the Syrian chemical attacks while he was in office.
Obama defended his decision in his interview last week, saying, “it made sense for a variety of reasons for us to see if we could actually try to eliminate the prospect of large-scale chemical weapons use rather than the political expedience of a one-time shot.”
Obama also said “the hardest issue” he dealt with was “sending our young men and women into harm’s way.” He said his decision to authorize the mission that killed Osama bin Laden was “difficult,” but he ultimately “felt enough confidence in … our Navy SEALS that once I knew that I could get them back out, I felt like it was worth a shot.”
Obama received the 2017 John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award award on May 7.