President Obama has made a memorable contribution to the annals of worthless diplomatic ultimatums with his infamous “red line” warning to Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons. It would be “totally unacceptable,” a “game-changer,” and bring “consequences.” He said all of this apparently believing he could scare Assad off using such weapons and giving nary a thought to what he would do if Assad defied his threats.
Now, the British, French, and Israelis all believe that Syria has used chemical weapons, and so do U.S. intelligence agencies “with varying degrees of confidence,” in the words of Chuck Hagel. The president has responded with Clintonian parsing of his past words — all but saying that it depends what the meaning of “red line” is — and with a defense lawyer’s doubt about the evidence against Assad. The entire episode is a lesson in not writing rhetorical checks you don’t want to cash, especially when the international credibility of the United States is at stake. The regime in Iran, pursuing nuclear weapons despite similar warnings from President Obama — who has assured the world he doesn’t “bluff” — must be taking careful notes.
It is certainly true that Syria, locked in a hellish civil war between the regime and an increasingly radicalized opposition, presents limited and unpalatable options for the United States. No one wants to put boots on the ground. A no-fly zone would invariably commit us to toppling Assad by force of arms and taking ownership of the post-Assad dispensation.
We should pursue a more limited course. If it is possible to identify and target stocks of chemical weapons from the air, without too much risk of contamination to innocents on the ground, we should do it. We shouldn’t want these weapons in the hands of Assad, or of a radical Islamist government that could replace him. But this might not be possible in the best of circumstances, and there are now reports that chemical weapons are being moved around the country and that we have lost track of them.
More broadly, we should give military aid to the more secular elements of the opposition, to strengthen them vis-à-vis the dominant radicals and give ourselves some allies on the ground. It would have been much better if the president had done this long ago, rather than putting all his faith in meaningless gestures and words. As the violence has dragged on and Sunni powers in the Middle East have armed their favored proxies, the most militant elements of the anti-insurgency have gained ground. Assad is a murderous wretch allied with Iran, but Syria is becoming an illustration of the Middle East principle that the enemy of my enemy is a complete bastard.
We should have no illusions that there are easy options in Syria or that a favorable outcome is likely, but that’s a reason to be hard-headed, not feckless. Not for the first time, the president of the United States can’t tell the difference.