Presidents Trump and Reagan: Syria and Libya
April 10, 2017
To receive Newt’s weekly newsletters, click here.
There are some fascinating parallels between President Trump’s decisive but low-key military response to the Syrian chemical attack and President Reagan’s equally decisive but low-key response to provocation by Libya in 1981.
In both cases a conservative Republican had replaced a weak liberal Democrat.
In both cases the liberal Democrat had talked a lot about moral power and key values but had been very unwilling to use the military. In both cases the military was left underfunded, under strength and undercapitalized so the incoming president had to advocate for a substantial military build-up.
In President Reagan’s case the Libyan dictator, Qaddafi, had declared the Gulf of Sidra Libyan territory and had termed the line of entrance into the gulf as “the line of death.”
Libyan fighters had fired on an American reconnaissance plane in 1980 but President Carter had not responded to the challenge.
President Reagan wanted a low-cost way of showing that America was a tougher, more aggressive country. He asked the Navy what would happen if we deliberately crossed the “line of death” and the Libyans challenged us. The Navy assured him that they could handle the obsolete Libyan equipment with minimal risk. As a result, President Reagan authorized a large battle group including two nuclear powered carriers.
On August 19, 1981 two United States Navy F-14s shot down two Libyan aircraft for no losses.
As a sign of the new calm, steady American approach President Reagan told the press, “If our planes were shot down, yes, they’d wake me up right away. If the other fellows were shot down, why wake me up?”
In one decisive understated fight President Reagan sent the Kremlin a signal that a new, tougher, and more risk taking American government was now prepared to challenge their efforts to control the world.
In commemoration of this decisive turning point there is an F-14 on display at the Reagan Presidential Library.
As an initial military action, there is a real similarity between the Reagan approach and what President Trump ordered on Thursday.
The Syrian dictatorship had clearly broken every agreement about chemical warfare and was using a vicious chemical weapon against civilians – including women and children.
In using these chemical weapons the Syrian military was violating a United Nations resolution and making a mockery of Russian assurances that the dictator Assad would refrain from using his chemical stockpiles.
President Trump had criticized his predecessor, President Obama, for setting red lines in Syria and then doing nothing. He had also criticized plans to put military forces on the ground to occupy the country.
The president had three choices. He could say a few noble words but do nothing in the Carter-Obama tradition. He could launch a major American ground campaign to replace Assad even if it meant confronting the Russians and the Iranians. Or he could use American technological strengths to launch a limited but very violent attack against a specific target, in this case the airfield from which the chemical weapons had come.
Much like President Reagan, President Trump chose a high-result, low-risk strategy. The United States hit the airfield with enough missiles that a powerful message was sent to Syria and the world. The United States is back in the business of leading from the front.
The way the Trump Administration dealt with the Russians was a good example of this new leadership. Putin was not consulted. The Russian military were warned through military channels of what we were doing and in effect were told to stay out of the way.
The fact is the United States is so much stronger than Russia that we can project power in a way they can’t stop. President Trump’s superb national security team knows how to apply military power and they showed it. This action took less than 48 hours to plan and it was powerful.
Three other points about President Trump’s response.
First, he had just met this week with President al-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. He clearly had their advice on how to deal with Assad.
Second, he was in the middle of dinner with the Chinese Premier and stepped out to speak to the country about the missile attack in Syria. If the Chinese wanted a vivid demonstration of the change in American toughness they could hardly have had a more timely visit.
Third, the President’s talk with the American people (and in fact with the world) was very emotional and very revealing. It is worth reading in its entirety.
I want to emphasize two parts of the talk.
First, President Trump grew very emotional when he reported “Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
The emotion as he talked about “beautiful babies” is a real reminder of how much the President loves children and especially babies. You can see it in how he treats his own children, but it really came through in his remarks.
Finally, for the first time I can remember an American President said “God bless America and the entire world.”
The president so many had feared was an isolationist has proven he will represent America first – but will also care for those in harm’s way around the world. It was a feeling President Reagan would have fully shared.