South Carolina’s foreign policy heavyweights, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, on Wednesday condemned Syria’s chemical attacks on civilians, but stopped short of throwing their weight behind military action.
The chemical attack in Syria on Tuesday killed at least 86 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Haley, South Carolina’s former governor, told U.N. members Wednesday that all evidence pointed to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
During her speech, she held up various photos of victims of the attack, mostly children. She said Russia had shielded Assad for too long.
“The illegitimate Syrian government led by a man with no conscience has led untold atrocities against his people for six years. If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it,” Haley said. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”
She stopped short of calling for military action in the speech.
“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” Haley said.
This rhetoric marked a shift in tone from President Donald Trump’s administration. Haley’s and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments before the attack led some to believe the U.S. was being soft on Assad’s regime.
Last Thursday, Haley told reporters the U.S. was beginning to turn its priorities to the Islamic State instead of Assad.
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” Haley said.
“I think the . . . longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson said in Turkey the same day.
Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed up Haley’s condemnation of Russia and Syria and called for action to be taken, but didn’t specify what.
“This is the moment for President Trump to prove to everyone that when it comes to foreign policy and standing up to dictators, he is not President Obama. I don’t believe this president will make the same mistakes of his predecessor when it comes to Assad,” Graham said in a statement Wednesday. “Here at home, I hope this attack will change the rhetoric of the last few days on the question of whether Assad should stay or go.”
Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, echoed Graham’s calls for action beyond rhetoric. He said the responses to the chemical attacks were fine but didn’t begin to address a strategy.
“It’s a hard problem; that’s a key point,” O’Hanlon said. “But the main point is to distinguish between the outrage that we’re feeling today and what’s going to be needed to actually do something about the carnage over the longer term and, frankly, how to end the war.”
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he was concerned that more Republicans weren’t condemning Russia or Assad. He also wasn’t sure if Trump wants to take military action at all.
“What is surprising to me isn’t what they’re saying, but how few people in the Republican Party are saying it,” Alterman said.