Former chief of staff Denis McDonough defends Obama on Syria

Denis McDonough, who was chief of staff to former President Obama, argued Thursday that the Syrian regime’s latest apparent use of chemical weapons could have been far worse if Mr. Obama hadn’t negotiated a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

“Imagine if he had this vast arsenal still available to him to use,” McDonough told Face the Nation moderator John Dickerson in an interview taped hours before President Trump announced the U.S. had launched roughly 60 missiles at a Syrian airfield.

In August 2012, Mr. Obama warned that any use of chemical or biological weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad would cross a “red line” and compel action from the U.S. Almost exactly a year later, in August 2013, Assad’s regime launched an attack using chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus.

In response, Mr. Obama said he believed the U.S. should strike, but instead of unilaterally deciding to do so, he put the matter to Congress for a vote. Congress was unable to muster the support to even proceed to an authorization of the use of force, but the U.S. and Russia were still able to negotiate a deal that forced Syria to hand over its chemical weapons arsenal.

Republicans and some foreign policy analysts criticized the president for not following through on his “red line” threat with the use of military force, and Mr. Trump echoed that criticism during a press conference Wednesday.

“I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand,” Mr. Trump said. “And when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat.  I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country.”

McDonough, however, argued that the “very credible threat of military force” Mr. Obama issued in 2012 produced a more favorable result than critics recognize.

“For the first time, the Syrians declared and eventually gave up a vast stockpile of chemical weapons, something they had not even acknowledged they had until then,” McDonough explained. “I think that’s a very important outcome. And particularly, as we saw this week, the depravity of this president, President Assad, to use those weapons against the most vulnerable people in his country.”

McDonough also reflected on the decision to seek authorization for the use of force from Congress.

“There was a big push to do something, and there was also an initial strong bit of bipartisan support from Capitol Hill for military action,” he recalled. “So we decided to test that. And what we learned is, when push came to shove, Congress did not want to have to vote on the question. And so I assume that’s one of the things that’s going through the White House mind now, which is: is there going to be bipartisan support for military action?”