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The Briefing: The Syrian snake that bites U.S. presidents

WASHINGTON – The world is full of snakes, and President Trump just got bit by the same one that bit his predecessor.

Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, seemingly emboldened by Trump's desire to withdraw troops from Syria, appears to have authorized a chemical attack Saturday in the Syrian city of Douma, killing 40. If that sounds familiar, perhaps it's because Assad, unafraid of then-President Obama's empty threats, staged chemical gas attacks against his own people five times in the waning years of the Obama administration.

There is a pattern here that ought to concern every American. When a president vacillates – or simply talks too much – snakes like Assad tend to strike.

Now you might be asking: Why should we even care about Assad, or about Syria, which has been a quagmire for six years?

The answer is simple: No one should want the use of chemical weapons to become the new normal.

Some 38 nations voted to ban the use of chemical weapons in 1925, and for good reason. For one thing, military strategists consider them ineffective. Moreover, they are morally reprehensible because they are so indiscriminate, endangering civilian populations with just a gust of wind and subjecting them to horrible suffering.

Yet Assad now has used chemical weapons repeatedly under two U.S. presidents. Obviously, in Syria, neither Obama nor Trump has served very effectively as the world's policeman.

Asked about the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria back in 2012, Obama said: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus."

Obama's implication was clear: If Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. military would respond.

Except it didn't. And Assad knew that under Obama, it wouldn't.

"He took Obama’s measure early on, and realized that the American president, who was cognizant of the limits of his country’s power and who was very eager to withdraw from Iraq, would limit his reaction to eloquent statements of moral outrage and righteous indignation," Hisham Melhem, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote last year.

That clearly hasn't been so with Trump. A chemical attack in Syria a year ago prompted a U.S. missile attack on a Syrian airfield. And in response to this weekend's attack, the president took to Twitter to warn Syria that it could pay a "big price" for the latest attack.

But Assad had good reasons not to fear Trump both before that 2017 attack and before the one this weekend.

Long before he became president, Trump tweeted again and again that the U.S. should not attack Syria. Obviously, Assad believed him.

And just last week, Trump signaled that he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, where they had been fighting the ISIS terror group. Only days later, Syria gassed another suspected rebel enclave. And to hear Sen. John McCain tell it, it's no coincidence.

Trump's proposed troop withdrawal "emboldened" Assad, McCain said over the weekend.

The unspoken implication in all of this is that perhaps it's best if presidents – and presidential aspirants – approach snakes like Assad the way you and I would if we encountered a rattler on a walk in the woods.

We wouldn't respond with loud warnings or eloquent words of righteous indignation or scattershot opinions. We would stay stone-cold silent until we figured out what to do.

Happening today

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a Senate hearing on the privacy problems plaguing the social network ... President Trump meets with the Emir of the State of Qatar and later hosts the NCAA football champions, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, at the White House … The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace holds a discussion on "Reconciling Personal Integrity and Government Service,'' with Daniel Ellsberg, author of "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner" … World Bank President Jim Yong Kim participates in an American University Law School forum to discuss how innovation and technology are helping redefine the relationship between rich and poor countries … The Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies holds a discussion on "Capitalism in an Age of Robots."

Good reads

Reason magazine offers a terrific explanation of why the FBI raid on the office of Michael Cohen – President Trump's personal lawyer – is a really big deal....The New York Times serves up a scoop about the Mueller investigation's probe into a $150,000 Ukrainian payment to Donald Trump's foundation in 2015...Politico explains how President Trump thrives in "news deserts" ... The New York Times says Republicans will try to save their House majority by running against impeachment ...And The Washington Post's David Montgomery – formerly of The Buffalo News – notes that Ohio's Dennis Kucinich proved to be the future of American politics.

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