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Obama tried to ‘pivot away’ from the Middle East, ex-adviser says

Philip Gordon also says US should have bombed Assad when he gassed his people in 2013

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The Obama administration should have followed through on its threat in 2013 to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, a former adviser to the US president said.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Philip Gordon, a former special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf Region, also acknowledged that President Barack Obama “sought to a degree to pivot away” from the Middle East “and avoid getting bogged down.” Neither that approach, nor the efforts by the previous Bush Administration to transform the region, had worked out too well, he acknowledged.

On what he deemed the incorrect response to Assadf’s gassing of his own people, Gordan said it was important to press the point that “when the United States says you can’t use chemical weapons, you can’t use chemical weapons.”

“I think sometimes, on the credibility point, on the deterrence point, you actually have to be willing to do things that are a cost to you,” Gordon told Jeffrey Goldberg.

A Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village receives treatment by doctors at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria, on March 19, 2013. (photo credit: AP/SANA, File)
A Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village receives treatment by doctors at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria, on March 19, 2013. (photo credit: AP/SANA, File)

“I accept that there was some risk of a slippery slope if he used CW again. But Assad would also have had to run that risk, and that’s just the dynamic that you’re in, so we needed to plant in his mind that if he tested our resolve, well, he was running a pretty big risk, too. And that might not be in either of our interests, but it certainly wouldn’t be in his,” Gordon added.

In the summer of 2013, following a US intelligence assessment that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in an attack in a Damascus suburb held by rebels, killing over 1,000 people, Obama threatened to retaliate with airstrikes. The US president then abandoned talk of attacking Syria after Assad agreed to the weapons surrender in a deal brokered via Russia.

Philip Gordon, the Obama administration's new Middle East coordinator (photo credit: AP/Philippos Christou)
Philip Gordon during his tenure as the Obama administration’s Middle East coordinator (AP/Philippos Christou)

Gordon also suggested that to an extent, Obama has tried to pivot away from the Middle East and avoid making the mistakes of predecessor George W. Bush.

“We had the Bush administration, which also saw problems in the Middle East and determined that the fix was to use massive American military power, to transform the region, to democratize it. I think Americans broadly judge that this didn’t work. And then the Obama administration has sought to a degree to pivot away and avoid getting bogged down. I don’t think anyone would say they’re satisfied where we are in the Middle East now either,” he said.

“The next administration will need to learn the right lessons from both experiences,” Gordon concluded.

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