H.R. McMasster was on Fox News Sunday and clearly over-matched and outgunned Chris Wallace, who came off looking unprepared and flailing about.
Wallace’s mission was to stir up discord with a nothingburger of a controversy concerning statements by Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson. If these comments had been made by players in the Obama administration, nothing would have been said. But, because Trump sucks and his administration is in disarray, suddenly there is a huge problem.
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) April 8, 2017
Sec. of State Rex Tillerson says he will work with allies and others on the issue of "how Assad's leadership is sustained or how he departs" pic.twitter.com/XrNegSzaT6
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) April 9, 2017
If you are applying a good faith analysis, there really isn’t a difference of policy here. Haley is expressing the opinion, that Tillerson does not disagree with, that a political solution is not possible with Assad in power. Tillerson is saying that, just like earlier last week, regime change in Syria is not a priority or policy of the United States.
WALLACE: The Trump administration seems to be sending mixed signals this weekend. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says that getting rid of Assad is a priority. On the other hand, Secretary of State Tillerson says that first, we have to get rid of ISIS, destroy ISIS, Assad can wait.
So, which is it? How does the president see this playing out in Syria?
MCMASTER: Well, both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley are right about this. What we really need to do, and what everyone who’s involved in this conflict needs to do is to do everything they can to resolve this civil war, to halt this humanitarian catastrophe, this political catastrophe, not only in Syria, but the catastrophe is affecting the greater Middle East, it’s affecting Europe and it’s a threat to the American people as well.
And so, to do that, what’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem. And what Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.
Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here? Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?
So, I think that while people are really anxious to find — to find inconsistencies in the statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria.
WALLACE: I understand that that’s the ultimate political objective. But Secretary Tillerson said destroying ISIS must come first. You don’t seem to be saying that.
MCMASTER: No, that’s exactly what we are saying. We have seen what ISIS does, right, how ISIS brutalize these people, how ISIS has now established control of territory and populations and resources and grown in strength and is threat to all civilized peoples. So, we are conducting very effective operations alongside our partners in Syria and in Iraq to defeat ISIS, to destroy ISIS and reestablish control of that territory, control of those populations, protect those populations, allow refugees to come back, begin reconstruction and allow the resources —
WALLACE: But, sir, I’m just trying to clear this up — is it two separate tracks at the same time or does ISIS have to happen first before we and the international community moved to depose Assad?
MCMASTER: Well, I think as you saw with the strike, that there has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of ISIS first. What you have in Syria is a very destructive cycle of violence perpetuated by ISIS, obviously, but also by this regime and their Iranian and Russian sponsors. And so, what we have to be able to do is to work together with our allies and partners to help resolve this conflict and the resolution of the conflict will tell each of the elements that you are talking about, Chris, the defeat of ISIS, and then also, it has to be a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.
WALLACE: But let me ask you a question, sir, which may clarify this, because as Kristin Fisher reported, Syrian warplanes are already using that same base that you and the U.S. forces hit Thursday night and they are reportedly again bombing that same town in northern Syria, but only this time with conventional weapons, not chemical. The question is, if Assad continues killing babies only with conventional weapons, not chemical, will this president stop that, or will President Trump say he’s going to do nothing, stand aside?
MCMASTER: Well, I think what’s important to remember is, our objective — our objective was to deter the continued use, because there’s been a pattern of the abuse of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and his mass murder attacks against innocent civilians. That was the objective.
And I think Ambassador Haley, Secretary Tillerson — everyone has confirmed that we are prepared to do more. In fact, we are prepared to do more. In fact, we are prepared to more two days ago as well.
And so, what’s significant about the strike is not that it was meant to take out the Syrian regime’s capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people, but it was to be a very strong signal to Assad and his sponsors that the United States cannot stand idly by as he is murdering innocent civilians — what was a redline in 2013. And so, that was the important objective to keep in mind here.
The other significant thing about this though —
WALLACE: He is continuing the mass murder. So, the question is, if he uses conventional weapons, is President Trump prepared to stop him from using conventional weapons to slaughter innocent civilians?
MCMASTER: Well, I think with this president — what we have is someone was helping us understand helping us provide him with an assessment of what is the degree of agency and control we have over this very complex situation. The president has, in response to a mass murder attack, acted decisively.
And if they’re using that airfield, that’s — I mean, that’s not what the objective was, to take out the airfield forever. The objective was to send a very strong political message to Assad. And this is — this is very significant I think because I think everyone should realize this is the first time the United States has acted directly against the Assad regime, and that should be a strong message to Assad and to his sponsors who are enabling his campaign of mass murder against his own civilians.
WALLACE: So, there is a possibility that President Trump, you are saying — leaving it wide open that he will act against President Assad if he goes against civilians no matter what weapon he uses?
MCMASTER: Well, the president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people, and it will be our job to provide him with options based on how we see this conflict evolve in this period of time before us, after the strike. And what we’re doing now is working with our partners, our allies, everyone, except Russia and Iran, who are somehow continue to think that it’s OK to be aligned with his murderous regime.
We are working with our parties and allies to magnify the effects of this strike to — and then to build momentum toward ultimately resolving the civil war, defeating ISIS and bringing the peace and security back to this region and to the Syrian people.
This is not an interview, this is hectoring. This is tendentious bullcrap.
McMaster actually lays out a very clear politico-military strategy for Syria.
1. Our focus is on ISIS.
2. We are not going to get involved in a war against Assad.
3. We are not going to allow the use of chemical weapons.
There are a couple of subtle messages here, too.
Obama allowed the Russians and Iranians to do what they wished in Syria because Obama’s strategic vision saw Iran as a partner. Because of that obeisance to Tehran, we basically sold out the Syrian resistance in order to preserve Assad’s regime because the Iranians need it. The fact that preserving Assad is not something that is too popular in the White House has to be noticed. McMaster also hints that we will see more of Haley and Tillerson calling out Russia and Iran on their support of Assad.
On the whole, I think McMaster did a great job in the interview. He stomped on the non-troversy between Haley and Tillerson, made it clear we were not going to get involved in a series of escalating strikes in Syria, and put Russia on notice that their behavior in Syria is not going to be ignored.