“I didn’t set a red line,” Barack Obama now insists. “The world set a red line.” It's a nice effort by the White House spinmeisters.
But I think the president was far more honest about his motives back on August 31, when he told the world: "We are the United States of America. ... Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. ... This nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities. ... Now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments."
The message was coded, but easy enough to decipher: America still has more responsibility and more of a commitment than any other nation to enforce the rules of the international order, because we built that order. The rules we made are the red line. Syria crossed them. Now Syria must pay, if only to prove that the U.S. is a credible enforcer; that, as Obama concluded, "We do what we say."
Obama's reference to the ashes of World War II is the key to the code, and to his hawkish Syria policy.
Back in 1942, when the fires of the war were still burning white hot, Franklin D. Roosevelt was telling people (quite privately) about his utopian postwar vision for lasting peace on earth. The story was quite simple: Nations go to war only if they have the weapons to do it. Take away their weapons, and -- presto! -- no more war. Eternal peace would let the United States go on freely trading with, and profiting from, every nation on earth forever.
Of course someone had to be strong enough to take away all those weapons and make sure no one else could obtain new ones. So four nations would be exempt from the command to disarm. The U.S., Britain, Russia, and China would be the world's "four policemen," as FDR called them, each enforcing the rules in their own part of the world.
However "by 1944 Roosevelt's musings about the four world policemen had faded into the background," as Martin Sherwin wrote in A World Destroyed, his classic history of how the atomic bomb reshaped world diplomacy in the 1940s. FDR was getting encouraging reports from the Manhattan Project and growing optimistic that the United States would have soon have an atomic bomb.
The fateful decision he made was to share the bomb and knowledge of how to make it only with the Britain and not with any other nation -- including, most importantly, Russia. FDR was misled into thinking that the U.S. and Britain could keep an atomic monopoly for two decades or more. So, he assumed, there would actually be only two policemen.
"The underlying idea" of his original plan, as Sherwin wrote, "the concept of guaranteeing world peace by the amassing of overwhelming military power, remained a prominent feature of his postwar plans."
After Roosevelt's death, the Truman administration made that concept the most prominent feature of America's postwar plan -- the international order that, as Obama said, the U.S. built out of the ashes of world war.
Harry Truman came increasingly under the sway of cold war hawks, who turned back all efforts to cooperate with the Soviets on anything related to the bomb. Our national commitment -- the responsibility we awarded ourselves in 1945 -- was to enforce the new world order and keep the peace by brandishing the bomb, or as Truman called it "the hammer." Its seemingly infinite power, wielded by an infinitely self-righteous nation, made it all too easy to feel like America could, and should, play the role of God in world affairs.
Of course the Soviet Union was not nearly as intimidated by that "hammer" as Truman and his cold warriors hoped. It took four decades to persuade the Soviets to stop competing for the title of global enforcer.
But for more than two decades now the United States has held undisputed claim to the title of the world's sole indispensable superpower. And, as in the cold war era, Americans still generally justify that claim with a simple moral tale of good (that's us) against evil (that's whomever we happen to be opposing at the moment). Infinite power plus infinite righteousness still equals something close to divinity. America still plays the lead in the greatest story ever told.
Chemical Weapons and WMDs
Back in the 1940s, with all attention focused on the atomic bomb, chemical and biological weapons didn't get much public attention. Only in recent years were they lumped together with nuclear weapons under the umbrella term "WMDs." But the principle remained the same: The United States alone would enforce the rules and red lines of the international game, because we alone would have the power to do it.
The U.S. has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international agreement calling on signatories to destroy their stocks of chemical weapons, and U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles are being destroyed. At the same time, though, U.S. leaders have emphasized a kind of equivalence between chemical and nuclear weapons. They have often said that their response to any chemical attack would be "devastating," with no weapons ruled out -- which implies, despite the calculated ambiguity, a clear threat of nuclear retaliation.
There's another obvious link between nuclear and chemical weapons. In American political culture, both are framed within the same dualistic narrative: Some WMDs are acceptable, some are unacceptable, and you damn well better know the difference, or else the enforcer will soon be at your doorstep.
How to know which is which? The enforcer will decide, in godlike fashion, and then let you know, explaining it all with the familiar tale of good versus evil. And if your WMDs are unacceptable, the enforcer will meet his responsibilities, fulfill his commitments, and do what he has been saying he'd do for the past 70 years: punish you. After all, his credibility is on the (red) line.
That narrative goes back to the fateful decision Franklin Roosevelt made: a British atomic bomb would be acceptable. A Soviet atomic bomb would be unacceptable.
Today we see the same dualism played out around the world. Iran must be prevented, at all costs, from obtaining even one nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, its neighbors to the east (Pakistan and India) and not far to the west (Israel) are perfectly entitled to keep expanding their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. is perfectly entitled to keep who knows how many nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea. But North Korea is a dangerous, even monstrous, threat because it has a tiny handful.
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The same dualistic principle applies to chemical weapons. When Syrians opposed to Bashar al-Assad stockpiled and very possibly used them, Washington uttered not a peep. Those WMDs are, apparently, acceptable. But if Assad did indeed use similar weapons himself, they are totally unacceptable and he must be punished.
Similarly, we are urged to be outraged that Assad refuses to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention; his very possession of the weapons is unacceptable. But we hear not a word about his most powerful regional rivals, Israel and Egypt, refusing to sign the same Convention. Their chemical weapons are, apparently, acceptable -- even if Egypt once actually used them in Yemen years ago.
Sometimes the very same chemical weapons can be transformed from one category to the other. It all depends on the context. Most famously, Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons in the 1980s was acceptable to the United States. By 2003, that same event had become utterly unacceptable, offered as prime evidence that he must have WMDs, including the nuclear kind, and therefore must be destroyed.
The moral of the story is clear: The global policeman's responsibility is to decide which WMDs are unacceptable and then to punish those nations that use or even obtain them, because those nations are bad guys by definition (a definition marked "made in USA"). Every president since FDR has embraced that as a foundational mythic narrative of U.S. foreign policy. Now Obama, having placed Assad's chemical weapons in the category of unacceptable, is calling us to act out the venerable myth once again.
Footnotes and Two Punch Lines
Like all good history stories, this one has its footnotes. But in this case the footnotes turn out to contain the punch lines, filled (like all good history stories) with irony.
Footnote one: Roosevelt never fully abandoned his vision of the "four policemen." It was enshrined in the UN Security Council, in the form of the permanent members. (France was added as a fifth world cop, as a last minute afterthought, when the UN was created in 1945.)
To prove their status as the world's most powerful nations, all five were given veto power -- which is why Obama can't use the Security Council, the route he and everyone else would have preferred, to legitimize an attack on Syria. Global cop Russia is determined to veto it. Oh, the irony.
Thus Obama is forced to turn to the U.S. Congress for a stamp of approval. Congressional approval is far from a sure thing. Congress is packed with Republicans who are eager to stick it to Obama any way they can. And on this issue they've got it easy, because they can say in all honesty that most of the voters back home are against an attack. Plenty of Democrats are getting the same message from the voters, forcing them to choose between their embarrassing their president and defying the will of the people, most of whom seem uninterested in being global enforcers.
Footnote number two: A good part of the public's reluctance to attack Syria comes from skepticism about the administration's version of the facts, bred by the obvious lies that the previous administration told about Iraq. The Bushites lost the public's trust not in their role as policeman but in their role as judge and jury, since the trial they conducted was so obviously a sham.
The irony here goes back to FDR, who made the phrase "four policemen" famous but apparently never mentioned the obvious: They would be not merely cops doing the arresting, but judges, juries, and executioners too. George W. Bush, too, focused only America's responsibility to be a forceful global cop (and executioner). He, too, forgot that the role of judge and jury is equally crucial.
The public's reluctance to use military force abroad -- what's so often called an "isolationist" mood -- brings us to a lengthy footnote number three: Why did Roosevelt create the narrative of acceptable (British) versus unacceptable (Soviet) atomic bombs? No one can say for sure why he cut the Soviets out of the nuclear action. But Sherwin offers a persuasive explanation for keeping the British in.
Roosevelt had fought long and hard against isolationism, right up to the moment Japan handed him total victory in that political battle by attacking Pearl Harbor. To his dying day, though, he always feared that the U.S. public would turn back to isolationism once the war ended. In that case, any president might find it politically impossible to carry out his responsibility as the world's policeman. FDR wanted Britain to have the bomb so it could take over the job if isolationism ever prevailed in the U.S.
Harry Truman and his hawkish advisors didn't have the same fear of resurgent isolationism. They were more intent on making the U.S. the sole global cop with real (that is, nuclear) power. So they relegated Britain to the role of very junior partner, permitted only a tiny token nuclear arsenal, while the U.S. arsenal spiraled to unimaginable levels of power.
Historians have generally given Truman higher marks on this one, claiming that Roosevelt's fear of isolationism was far exaggerated. But FDR always took a long view of things and had an unerring instinct for reading the hearts and minds of the voters. Eventually, he was proven right, sort of.
The isolationist mood did return when the U.S. was defeated in Vietnam. After a strong showing in the '70s, that mood has waxed and waned. But now, after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that can't be called victories and can easily be seen as defeats, isolationism is again threatening to make the kind of comeback that FDR expected.
So the confidence of post-FDR presidents that they needed little real help from Britain, since isolationism would never return, turns out to be somewhat misplaced. But it's too late to return to FDR's wisdom, because Britain can no longer be counted on to play the role of global policeman. Parliament underscored that point when it rejected a strike on Syria. Oh, the irony.
Now we can only wait to see what America's elected representatives do. Few of them are disputing that Assad did something bad. All are hearing the siren call of the White House: You have a chance to wield virtually infinite power in a perfectly righteous cause, a chance to act like God. Who could resist such a temptation?
And public opinion could turn. The satisfying morality tale that the administration presses upon the public may trump all the uncertainty about the facts. The voters may, in the end, give Congress enough leeway to allow that tale to be acted out once again. Then we'll go out into the dusty main street of the world once more, face down the evildoers on the other side of the (red) line, and fight yet another final showdown to prove our credibility.
But Congress may reject Obama's call to strike Syria. Then it would say, in effect, that Assad's chemical weapons, if not acceptable, are at least tolerable. In other words, the unacceptable WMDs of the bad guys don't always require any response from the United States. That could be a big step toward forcing the world's last global cop to hang up his badge and call it the end of an era.