Forget Red Lines: Obama Should Eat His Words on Syria
Despite his better judgment, Obama is poised to make serious mistakes in Syria–all because he made words like "red line" part of his vocabulary.
The good news? President Obama’s surprise decision to consult Congress about launching a U.S. strike on Syria has returned crucial powers to the people’s representatives, allowing a much-needed public discussion about the U.S. stake—or lack thereof—in Syria’s civil war.
The bad news? Obama has claimed the authority to attack Syria no matter what Congress decides. This arrogance, which mirrors America’s own hubris on the world stage, will no doubt escalate the threat of terrorism against the United States and could embroil the country in a broader Middle Eastern war.
The White House has justified its proposed attack by asserting that Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons violated international “standards” and “norms.” However, if the Obama administration does go ahead with its proposed strikes, the United States itself will be acting in violation of international law. According to the U.N. Charter, the United Nations “prohibits any and all use of force against other states, except for the purpose of individual or collective self-defense, or as authorized by the U.N. Security Council for the purposes of restoring or maintaining collective security.” None of these conditions currently apply.
The president and his national security team have apparently already concluded that intervention in Syria serves America’s interests, and appear determined to act accordingly. Chemical weapons merely provide a justification to assert those interests, among which are to ensure access to oil and to help allies, especially Israel, in the Middle East. Moreover, the intervention has a global and regional component: the administration is warning the Russian Federation and China that the United States will defend its interests in the Middle East, with military force if necessary. As for Iran, it is a warning that the United States is determined to reduce Iranian influence in the region, sending a signal that Washington has the will and capability to retaliate if Iran decides to develop nuclear weapons.
What are the facts of the case? Obama has concluded “that the Syrian government, in fact, carried out” a chemical attack on civilians, and that we need to send “a pretty strong signal that they better not do it again.” Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the White House has overwhelming evidence and “high confidence” that the government of Syria used chemical weapons, and released a declassified intelligence dossier to back up these charges. But the United States does not in fact have ironclad proof that Assad used chemical weapons in August. To be sure, the UN envoy has suggested that some chemical substance was used but has not released any definitive findings about the culprit. While it’s likely that Assad is guilty, it is also conceivable that a rogue military unit or a segment of the rebel opposition could be the culprit.
Many well-meaning people believe the United States must intervene on humanitarian grounds in order to stop Assad from using chemical weapons on his people again. But while protecting civilians and preventing future tragedies is vital, there are strong reasons not to trust the motivations of the people pushing this war, or the likely outcomes of the proposed military intervention.
History provides important lessons in this regard. The supposed weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) in Iraq green-lighted the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, leading to years of war and almost innumerable deaths. The Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 led to a lengthy U.S. ground war in Vietnam. Pursuing U.S. “interests” led to the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the United States secretly gave arms to Iran (part of the Iran-Contra affair) while providing intelligence to Iraq on the location of Iranian troops, knowing full well Saddam Hussein would use his chemical weapons against them. This track record should inspire little confidence among actual humanitarians.
The Obama administration has emphasized that any attack on Syria would be a “limited” intervention that would not involve “boots on the ground” or lead to a wider war. Yet Secretary Kerry’s recent remarks about Syria were tantamount to a declaration of war. Kerry called the use of chemical weapons an “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” and a “moral obscenity,” evoking the equally strident tone used by Secretary of State Colin Powell about Iraq’s WMDs—which, as we know now, turned out to be non-existent.
Meanwhile, many commentators and analysts are nearly hysterical in their support for intervention in Syria. Some suggest Obama will be considered weak if he does not act. Many of them are the same neoconservatives who championed the invasion of Iraq. They are gunning for an attack on Damascus and said so in a recent letter to President Obama advocating for full regime change so that Assad will “no longer threaten America” or “our allies in the region.”
In planning a military attack, the United States is increasingly isolated. Not a single Arab government is openly supporting U.S. military action. (Although several Arab regimes would be happy to see Assad go, they rightly fear their own citizens’ reaction to any American intervention.) Aside from France, Western allies are not rushing to support the United States either. The British parliament soundly defeated a request by Prime Minister David Cameron to join the coalition, and Cameron respected that decision. Consequently, the United States is acting without broad backing by an international community.
Many who support a military intervention in Syria do not address the possible and probable reactions of Iran, Hezbollah, or the Arab streets in Jordan and Iraq. An escalated war in Syria could spread into Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, and would very probably engage Iran. The White House claims it will not pursue regime change in Syria, but we all know what happened to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya just two years ago.
How will the United States respond when Middle East actors retaliate with terrorist acts? It is unreasonable to expect that military intervention will be met with silence. It is very likely that the United States will become mired in a war in the Middle East. Syria will then become a secondary consideration as the fuse of discontent is lit among Arabs against the United States.
All this will happen because a talkative president made “Assad must go,” “red-line,” and “game changer” part of his vocabulary. But sometimes it’s better to eat your words than repeat them.
© 2013 Foreign Policy in Focus