In the movie The Princess Bride, one of the characters repeatedly exclaims “Inconceivable!” every time an event occurs, prompting another to respond, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Substitute red line for “inconceivable” and any reporter could say the same thing about the Obama administration’s current foreign policy proclamations. I wrote a blog some time ago about the red line the administration proclaimed for nuclear development in Iran, a line that was crossed long ago, forcing them to parse their words to wiggle out of the box they’d created, to whit: They didn’t mean develop the capability or create the components for a bomb. They meant actually assembling one. Ahhh…so much difference.
Another Obama administration red line has been President Assad deploying chemical weapons against his people. President Obama and his staff have avowed on at least seven occasions that the use of chemical weapons was a clear red line with harsh consequences. It would be in Obama’s words a “game changer”. Last week several western intelligence agencies stated that Assad had, in fact, used chemical weapons on the Syrian people. The U.S. said we weren’t convinced. Yesterday, our own intelligence community said it’s looking like he did. Oops. Now what?
Like it did with Iran, the administration has backpedaled on what the red line of chemical weapons activity would be in Syria. First, it was any indication of movement of chemical weapons. When the Syrian army was detected loading chemical agents into aerial munitions last December, it reduced the red line to actually using them, not preparing to use them. Now, the box is built, and it’s going to be very hard to get out.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hawk on Syria. Quite the opposite, actually. I hear John McCain frothing at the mouth for military intervention, and I wonder if, like the people who confused the Chechen bombers for the Czech Republic, he hasn’t confused Syria with Sudan. I personally believe that if we were going to do any regime change in Syria, we should have done it long ago, when we had some ability to control the outcome. Now, with rebel groups freely pledging fealty to Al Qaida, it makes it nearly impossible. It’s like watching a child pornographer wrestle a serial killer. Who really gives a shit who wins? Both are evil.
Obama’s learning a hard lesson in the value of rhetoric, though. Do nothing after such harsh statements about red lines and the world sees the U.S. as full of hot air, a recipe that may embolden others such as North Korea, or scare our allies such as Israel into taking action on their own because they no longer have faith in American resolve.
But if we do something we will invariably be drawn into another Mideast nation-building effort, regardless of what our new security strategy wanted. Unlike Libya, where the only thing at stake from flawed policy was the life of our ambassador, we can’t allow Syria to devolve into militias running amok. The risks of conflict spreading to Lebanon or Jordan are very real, and we cannot allow WMD material to flow out into the intra-linked terrorist networks. Chemical weapons in the hands of the rebels would almost guarantee they will end up on our shores, and be used against us. This mess isn’t like Libya. Air power alone will not achieve our policy goals, because this time we will most definitely have to deal with the mess left behind. If we go, it will be boots on the ground – at the very least to secure the WMD sites.
Correction, if we go, it should be boots on the ground, but that’s not saying we will. In the end, the political machine will decide what the public will bear, and like Afghanistan in the 1980s, we can turn and run if the polls show it’s not favorable because nobody in office now will have to deal with the future repercussions.
Or we could choose option number three: Dither some more while proclaiming we have no credible proof that chemical weapons have been used, in effect kick that damn red line down the road. In public Obama is demanding Syria let a team in to investigate, but I’m fairly sure he’s calling Assad in private and begging him to deny the request. It’s the only way he can keep pushing the red line back and delay a decision that should have been made three years ago.
I can hear Assad now, talking to his military, “Obama keeps saying red line, but I do not think it means what he thinks it means.”