08/29/2013 02:54 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

Syria: What Would Reagan Do?

Going through my "to do" box of files from the Reagan library today I came across a July 7, 1987 letter from President Reagan to Prime Minister Thatcher that discusses Syria. It naturally immediately caught my attention, especially when it was in a folder on Libya. I started that file way before the current Syrian civil war, and after going through the file I immediately knew why I put the letter in the "Libya" file: in 1987 Libya was a major supporter of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization, I was at the time working on Libyan support for terrorism, and Reagan noted in his letter to Thatcher that

"We see value in pressuring Assad to take additional action against the Abu Nidal and to abandon his support of terrorists."

Time, I guess, has a funny way of making things relevant again. The letter, which I just added to my website,, and which can be found in the Head of State files, is really just a short note to Thatcher apologizing to her that his plan to send a Special Envoy to Damascus leaked to the press and "caused problems for you before the EC meeting." But, President Reagan wrote,

"I am pleased to see that we have reached an agreed assessment of the importance of the recent moves by President Assad against the Abu Nidal organization. Also, we are, I believe, in complete agreement that any approach towards Syria should be cautious, deliberate and step-by-step."

President Obama, until now at least, seems to have followed President Reagan's "cautious, deliberate and step-by-step" approach to the tee. With the recent revelations of Assad's use of chemical weapons, and now with a U.S. backed attack on the Syrian regime seemingly inevitable, I started wondering what Reagan may have done in the same situation. Thanks to the recent great work at Foreign Policy exposing Reagan's knowledge of Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, we can't say that Assad's use of chemical weapons would be enough for Reagan to throw his support behind the Syrian opposition. The Foreign Policy team uncovered that even though Reagan knew about Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons, he still supported Iraq in its bloody conflict with Iran.

So what would Reagan do? Having already, and I think wisely, cut and run from Lebanon in 1984, I don't see any chance of sending any ground troops back into the Middle East. But, given the success of Operation El Dorado Canyon, a strike against Libyan military infrastructure in April 1986, I can almost see his use of a limited aerial attack against Syrian military targets.

So what about President Obama, who I think is in a much more tricky situation than Reagan would have been in given a Syrian civil war in the 1980s. (I think it is safe to say given a Syrian civil war in the 1980s the United States would have limited its support to the opposition to intelligence and weapons, like Carter and Reagan did for the Mujahidin in Afghanistan.) No matter what, I don't see it going well, except perhaps for Hillary Clinton who can now watch from a safer distance. If President Obama defers action, he is going to have blood on his hands, especially if there is another chemical attack. But if he throws his support behind the opposition, there is no telling how Assad will respond, especially since his use of chemical weapons has limited his chances for stepping away unscathed. In this fight to the finish, if I had to pick sides I'd want to be on the side of the righteous. But in a conflict in which both sides have lost all moral credibility, that decision comes down to supporting the side that can do less harm. Assad's use of chemical weapons just proves he is in the position to do more harm, though I have no doubt that had the Syrian opposition had access to the same chemical weapons they would have also used them.

In this tough moral dilemma, it's time President Obama did the right thing. He could start by setting up a no-fly zone in Syria, and follow that up by squeezing Assad until he has no choice but to crawl back into his palace and watch while Syrians decide for themselves how they want to go forward.