Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
There may be a new sheriff in town — that is, in Syria and the surrounding regions of the Middle East. And it’s not the United States, or Donald Trump. It’s Trump’s leading friend in Europe: French President Emmanuel Macron. A bizarre series of tit-for-tat messages over the past 24 hours has led to the unlikely scenario of Macron, the 40-year-old French President, taking a leadership role that had so long belonged to a succession of American leaders.
It would seem the last thing either Trump or Macron would want to do is pollute the bizarre friendship the two have somehow managed to establish that has led the French President to become the first world leader to be invited to a state visit at the White House (with a dinner at Mount Vernon, no less).
Indeed, it was hard to see how a 71-year-old Trump, who considers himself the unchallenged leader of the free world, could tolerate being lectured to, let alone embrace the demands of a first-year president almost half his age of a nation a quarter the size of the United States.
So, it was somewhat surprising that Macron told a nationwide television audience in France Sunday night that, “Ten days ago, President Trump was saying ‘the United States should withdraw from Syria.’ We convinced him that it was necessary to stay.” But then, the White House shot back within hours that Trump had not changed his mind and still wanted out. The ball was now back in Macron’s court, and he may not know Donald Trump as well as he would like. Other than being talked out of firing Robert Mueller, it’s hard to remember the last time anyone, outside his immediate family, ever persuaded Trump to do anything serious, let alone the right thing.
But then, Macron quickly seized the initiative. “The White House is right to recall that the military engagement is against [ISIS] and will finish the day that the war against [ISIS] has been completed. France has the same position,” the French leader clarified on Monday. “Our responsibility goes beyond the fight against Daesh (ISIS) and that it was also a humanitarian responsibility on the ground and a long-term responsibility to build peace.”
On Friday, Trump said the United States is “prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” Part of Trump’s willingness to join forces with France and Britain in this attack on Syria, thereby effectively postponing any immediate disengagement, could stem from a desire, as he has demonstrated on multiple occasions, to have improved on the actions of his predecessor: acting more decisively, more directly, more courageously, more manfully.
Barack Obama backed out of his own red line challenge on this very subject. In August 2013, Obama had drawn a red line across Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Then, when Assad used those very weapons, and with the French President at the time, François Hollande, prepared to join the United States in mounting an attack in reprisal, Obama stepped back from the brink. As a way to save face, Obama acquiesced to a Russian proposal for Assad to remove or destroy all his chemical weapons by the middle of 2014. That proposal did little but cement Putin’s control over Assad and secure Assad’s long-term aim of maintaining a chemical weapons capacity.
Macron has still not given up on some diplomatic solution. Unlike Trump, whose problems with Russia are endemic and buried in the wide skepticism of the Kremlin’s role in his own election and legitimacy as President, Macron has managed to maintain some semblance of a relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Macron’s advisers confided that the French President talked by telephone with Putin just hours before the strike, telling the Russian leader, “I believe my red line was crossed.” And the Soviet news agency Tass confirmed on Sunday that Macron still plans to visit Putin in St. Petersburg in May, weeks after the French President’s visit to Washington.
So, what’s left for Trump as the dust settles over what appears to have been quite a limited exercise in retribution for the latest chemical attack by Assad? Somehow, the President must find a way of asserting his leadership in an issue that has consumed at least the last three American presidents. At the core is the mission of eradicating ISIS, which does appear largely to have been accomplished, at least in its Syrian strongholds. But at the same time, some solution must be found to the far more intractable problem of Syria’s remaining in the utter control of a butcher who has given free rein to his Russian allies and neighbor Iran to expand their already dangerous footprint in the heart of the Middle East. Trump still seems quite prepared to leave such things to America’s friends and allies, including France.
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It may well be worth it to Trump to somehow contain his own ego and allow the French to take the lead and accept the credit for brokering some compromise. Obama’s approach five years ago hardly seems to have been the right solution.
What the nature of such a compromise might be today, in the midst of a fog of war and destruction, is difficult to envision. But at least if some parties can continue a dialogue, that in itself is clearly worth pursuing. At the same time, a precipitous American withdrawal from Syria would send the wrong message. Perhaps Emmanuel Macron, during his visit next week, can persuade his friend Donald Trump to embrace a fuller approach — a continuing American presence, a search for compromise and negotiation and go even one step further to temper his tweets in the interest of some viable end game.