At the risk of being accused of stating the obvious, the what-ifs of history become increasingly significant when considered in the context of globalization and power politics.
One doesn’t have to go back to the end of World War I when the mistakes were made in the Treaty of Versailles that led to the rise and ultimate devastation just 20 years later of Nazi Germany to realize that if the allied parties had been more generous in their victory settlement, Hitler and the Third Reich and World War II might have been avoided.
For instance, what if Jimmy Carter had made it clear to Iranian leaders immediately following the invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that this nation would not tolerate the incursion and would sacrifice whatever it took, including the embassy personnel, to overturn what was clearly an act of war? What if he had warned unequivocally that they would either release the hostages and remove the invaders immediately or face retaliation that would leave them without their city and much of their nation, and mean it?
His failure to take prompt action and to permit the situation to linger on for almost a year while the rest of the world watched in amazement is clearly responsible for lowering the esteem for America as the global power and ultimately played a significant role in destabilizing the Middle East, a factor we have paid dearly for in men and material and money, an enormous amount of it. As a result, Carter lost his job.
What if Barack Obama had carried through instead of doing nothing after warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the United States would not tolerate the use of poison gas in that nation’s civil war. The red line he announced that he had drawn was meaningless when Assad thumbed his nose at the threat, promising to do away with his chemical weapons and going back on the promise.
Can’t Obama’s failure and timidity then be attributed directly to having caused the latest Assad use of deadly chemicals on mainly women and children? Of course, it can. But then Obama’s handling of the entire Syrian situation, along with his State Secretary, Hillary Clinton, was abysmal, leaving the Russians time to hone their support of Assad and bring their own airpower into play.
Now that message has been sent in a forceful yet measured way but three years later than it should have been. It is Donald Trump who now must find a way to settle an extremely thorny situation without triggering a much broader conflict. Trump’s problems are clearly made worse by a more defined Russian presence and support for Assad that wasn’t there when Obama drew his line. Investigations of alleged links to the Russians within his administration not to mention Trump’s seeming cordiality with Vladimir Putin also complicate things. State Secretary Rex Tillerson is scheduled to visit Russia this week.
In fairness, this wasn’t Trump’s doing, although he has sent mixed messages on Syria as late as recent when Tillerson and others let it be known Assad’s removal was no longer policy. The question is whether it is now. The missile strike was not aimed at the Assad administration’s infrastructure.
But pressure from Trumps own party could change that. Republican Sen. John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a onetime presidential nominee and a war hero, has urged stronger action in the Syrian matter from the beginning.
So, a U.S. president has met a “what-if” situation affirmatively and may have to go further. It’s a challenge each commander in chief faces in a volatile world. Whether Trump will be prepared to take the next step if necessary depends on Assad’s ultimate willingness to reassess his own position, which seems unlikely, Russia’s response, and if the United Nations is finally prepared to prove it just isn’t an impotent wonder.
Whatever. The fact is that by following through on what clearly is the right path has given Trump a new status for toughness his predecessor didn’t exhibit. By quickly responding to the latest threat to human life, Trump’s message hopefully has been widely received. The “what-if” factor in this case at least has been removed from the equation as it should have been a little over three years ago.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.