Obama put America in a red-line box on Syria


Syrian refugees run from a gas explosion at the Al Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria March 8, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • President Obama's edict on chemical weapons was an unforced error. Now Iran will watch closely to see what the US does.

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  • President Obama's "red line" rhetoric on Syria has now crashed into reality.

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  • What do "game changer" and "enormous consequences" mean to President Obama?

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Barack Obama has often warned Syrian leader Bashar Assad about chemical weapons: Wielding them, the president has said, would cross a "red line" and be a "game changer" for U.S. policy, "with enormous consequences." His rhetoric has now crashed into reality.

The administration is hedging on how confident it is regarding the evidence of Assad's transgressions. But with the president's own Defense Department and close allies like Israel and Britain already asserting that Syria has used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama's wiggle room is vanishing.

His propensity for unthinking rhetoric instead of concrete action is not new. The president's announcement in 2011 of an ill-advised and very public timetable for withdrawing militarily from Afghanistan-giving the Taliban a target date when they can turn to carving up Afghanistan's security forces without NATO's inconvenient presence-is another prime example. Surely there also is a huge surplus of rhetoric over action regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist assassinations of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya-an attack that, almost eight months later, remains unaveng

What do "game changer" and "enormous consequences" mean to Mr. Obama? On Syria, he wants a comprehensive U.N. investigation, relying on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization-which have as much chance of conducting a thorough inspection inside Syria as the Israeli national symphony. No doubt we will soon hear calls for International Criminal Court indictments of Assad and his henchmen for crimes against humanity. That, in State Department parlance, would be a "strong signal," probably followed by a "stiff note" to Assad's friends in the Kremlin. How they will tremble in Damascus.

At present, we don't know whether Mr. Obama plans anything beyond diplomacy and still more rhetoric. Perhaps he does. But the president's unfortunate behavior to date has already caused grave damage to his personal credibility internationally, and, far more serious, to that of the United States government.

Mr. Obama would have been better advised to draw a different "red line," committing the U.S. to preventing any chemical weapons or components from falling into terrorists' hands or being transported outside Syria. This would have required careful scrutiny of Assad's chemical-weapons stockpiles, as well as military action to destroy the stockpiles if they were about to fall into radical opposition hands, or started moving toward Syria's borders.

True, the humanitarian costs of chemical-weapons use inside Syria are potentially high, but so are the risks to American and allied forces trying to destroy or seize chemical weapons, given the dangers and complexities involved. Taking military or covert action against the chemical weapons is therefore justified only where the global risks to American citizens or our allies are palpable, and where the operational risks are more acceptable.

Supporters of aiding Syria's opposition argue that U.S. assistance should not focus on chemical weapons, but instead should consist of establishing no-fly zones, providing weapons and possibly even direct military involvement. But these advocates (who favored precisely the same aid before the claims of chemical-weapons use) are missing a key point: Syrian's chemical-weapons attacks in no way altered the unpleasant fact that the opposition is thick with terrorists-including al Qaeda-and radical Islamicists. However incrementally more reprehensible Assad's regime is for using chemical weapons, the underlying strategic realities, and America's interests, have not changed.

What has changed, if Mr. Obama allows his red line to be crossed unanswered, is that his latest act of foreign-policy fecklessness provides further proof to Iran, North Korea and other adversaries, whether states or terrorists, that he is not a force to be reckoned with. The killing of Osama bin Laden is no rebuttal, since that master stroke was long in the making before Mr. Obama even imagined running for president. In fact, the president's credibility gap could explain why Assad risked testing the envelope, using chemical weapons in isolated attacks rather than waiting to deploy them Götterdämmerung-style to prevent final regime collapse. Assad may have simply calculated that Mr. Obama, regardless of his rhetoric, would not act on the evidence of relatively limited chemical-weapons use.

The understandable temptation to urge the president to make good on his red-line warning should be resisted. Even given the harm of failing to impose penalties on Assad for defying the ultimatum, there is no compelling logic to compound the president's foolishness by risking the lives of American soldiers. Unfortunately, this wound to U.S. credibility is now part of Mr. Obama's legacy. His successor will have to work hard to recover that credibility through real international leadership.

Until then, the most urgent new reality is the further shredding of any confidence in Mr. Obama's monotonous assurances to Israel that he will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from getting deliverable nuclear weapons. These assurances filled the air during Mr. Obama's recent visit to Israel. Many of his listeners there were persuaded that he meant what he said.

Think again. Mr. Obama has long believed that a nuclear Iran could be contained and deterred, a hypothesis that will soon be tested if Israel allows Iran to cross the nuclear finish line.





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John R.
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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