There is much buzz right now about whether the cruel Syrian Baathist-Alawite regime of Bashar Assad, struggling to hold on to power in the midst of civil war against rebel Sunni forces, crossed President Obama’s “red line” by using Sarin gas, a war crime. That is not really the important point for Americans. There are two things to consider here.
First, specifically how would intervening militarily in Syria’s awful civil war be in American national interest?
It is important to get a clear cut answer here because everyone arguing that Assad has “crossed a red line” that we will “not tolerate” is making a de facto argument for some kind of intervention on our part. Maybe if no one can define such an interest it is because there isn’t any and intervening will bring the US nothing but costs in blood and treasure without gaining anything of strategic value. I’m not against intervention per se but there really ought to be a coherent reason so we can rationally measure it against the potential costs which, from where I sit, look rather large.
Secondly, in important matters of state, you don’t negotiate in public with a potential adversary if you really hope to gain a concession from them and if you reach the point of issuing a public ultimatum, you don’t bluff.
The people who have advised President Obama to make these “red line” statements to Syria through the media instead of quietly through diplomatic channels are either professionally incompetent at statecraft or they were hoping to manipulate the President by getting him to back himself into a corner with tough rhetoric so that if Assad did not blink then Obama would have the choice of looking weak and foolish or of approving some kind of action against Syria. Either way, the President was poorly served by this advice. Maybe he needs some new foreign policy and national security advisers who actually know something more about the world than domestic politics and being lawyer-lobbyists.
As a result that the President never really had any intentions of, say, invading Syria this year, we are now being treated to nervously asserted, lawyerly parsing of what really counts as “red lines” and what technical level of Sarin gas particulates constitutes “use”. It is an embarrassing climb down for the administration but also for the United States that never needed to happen. Empty posturing is not a substitute for a policy. Saying “Do something!” is not a strategy.
This is no brief for Assad’s regime. He’s definitely a bad actor and runs a nasty and now democidal police state he inherited from his mass-murdering father, Hafez Assad. I’m open to hearing why the US should aid in a regime change because the outcome will be in our interests in some concrete and definable way. Oh, yeah, and it might help if the person making the pitch knew something about Syria and regional geopolitics, or was at least consulted about it.
Let’s think long and hard this time.