On September 4, 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued a press statement warning that the United States would not permit the Soviet Union to deploy nuclear ballistic missiles to Cuba. Were the Soviets to take such action, it read, “the gravest issues would arise.” His statement, which was also communicated privately to the Kremlin and publicly reiterated a week later, was a response to Soviet shipments of conventional weapons to Castro’s regime. As far as Kennedy knew at the time, the Soviets had not installed any nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island nation, and it seemed highly unlikely that they would attempt to do so. When it was discovered a few short weeks later that Moscow had indeed sent such weapons to Cuba, Kennedy found himself boxed in by his earlier statements, forced to threaten war with the USSR even though he was unsure that the missiles in Cuba posed much of an additional threat, since the U.S. already faced the threat of nuclear annihilation from ICBMs located inside the Soviet Union. Two days into what would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy lamented to his advisors that he had drawn a line over Cuba in the first place. “Last month I said we weren’t going to [permit Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba]. Last month I should have said that we don’t care.”
Kennedy’s dilemma comes to mind fifty-one years later as President Barak Obama considers military action against Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime. Having declared Syrian chemical weapon use a “red line” for the United States in August 2012, Obama has found himself forced to choose between launching an unpopular military strike on Syria with little international support or backing down in a way that undermines U.S. credibility. His reasons for issuing the threat to Assad to begin with appear dubious upon further examination, while the downsides to armed intervention are considerable. Like Kennedy in 1962, Obama issued his warning to Assad confident that that warning would be heeded. And like Kennedy, Obama may wish he had refrained from drawing a red line to begin with.
The Obama administration’s rationale for U.S. military intervention is weak. In fact, it has yet to clearly explain why Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people merits an armed response while his indiscriminate use of conventional weapons during Syria’s civil war has not. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that approximately 110,000 Syrians have died since the nation’s civil war began in 2011, roughly 40,000 of whom were non-combatants. Assad’s regime has deliberately attacked civilian populations using artillery, aerial bombardment, and sniper fire. More than 2 million Syrians have been forced to flee the country since the fighting began. Moreover, the rate of violence in the country has increased as the conflict has gone on. The war’s death toll increased from 10,000 in June 2012 to 70,000 by the end of March 2013, a figure that is believed to have climbed by another 40,000 over the five months since then. Yet none of these horrific circumstances have prompted the U.S. or any other country to intervene in the conflict. In fact, up to now Washington has made clear its desire to stay out of Syria’s conflict.
The apparent chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21 caused President Obama to change his mind. The high death toll from the attack – 1,429, according to the U.S., although other estimates put it lower – surely played a part in this, but it was the nature of the attack that led Obama to call for the use of military force. Speaking on August 26 about the need for a forceful response to the Ghouta attack, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “This is about the large-scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all.” Similarly, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4 that “chemical weapons make no distinction between combatants and innocent civilians, and inflict the worst kind of indiscriminate suffering.” President Obama echoed these statements in his speech to the nation last week. “Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them.”
The international norm against chemical weapons use is worth supporting because such weapons are indeed indiscriminate. However, when they are used in a conflict already characterized by the intentional slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians, it’s not clear why the horrors that result should stand out from the countless other atrocities that have been committed. The chemical attack on Ghouta most certainly merited international outrage and condemnation, but surely this is because of the large number of innocents who were killed rather than the way those lives were lost. If 1,429 Syrians had been killed at conventional bombing rather than sarin gas, it’s hard to see how their deaths would have been any less tragic. Obama administration officials speak of chemical weapons as a unique evil while never actually articulating why this is so. They are far from the first human beings to view chemical warfare this way – the first modern effort to ban chemical weapons dates back to 1899 – but they are the first to seriously propose enforcing the international taboo against it with military force.
The administration and others advocating armed intervention have also invoked the specter of chemical weapons proliferation if the U.S. does not respond. In his Senate testimony, Kerry said, “If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, would acquire them and would use them.” Concerns that Syria’s chemical stockpiles will fall into the wrong hands are quite valid. It’s hard to see, though, why this danger is any greater now than it was before the Ghouta attack. It’s also unclear how attacking Syria helps address this problem.
For now, the military option has been put on hold as a result of recent diplomatic efforts, but Obama has said it remains on the table. If the current negotiations do fall through and Obama decides to respond to the Ghouta attack with armed force, he will face a major dilemma as to how to go about it. The stated goals of U.S. intervention would be to deter the Syrian government from carrying out further chemical attacks and to diminish its capacity to do so. More broadly, Washington seeks to both discourage other global actors from employing weapons of mass destruction and convince them that they cross the United States at their peril. These goals cannot be accomplished unless the U.S. inflicts substantial harm on the Syrian regime. A small scale attack conducted purely for symbolic value would demonstrate U.S. reluctance rather than resolve and would probably be seen as a sign of U.S. timidity by Assad and others. It is for this reason that Obama stated in his televised address that “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”
At the same time, there are two important factors that will serve to limit the extent of any U.S. military intervention. First, domestic opinion is firmly against it. The American public and its representatives in Congress are strongly opposed to another war. In a New York Times/CBS poll conducted in early September, only 30 percent expressed support for a U.S. military strike in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Sixty-one percent said they opposed such action. Other public opinion surveys have come up with similar results. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s proposed resolution to authorize force has encountered steep opposition in the Senate and House of Representatives. As a result, the administration has sought to publicly downplay the scale of a potential U.S. attack and emphasized that a U.S. strike on Syria would be a one off event rather than an open ended conflict. The phrase “no boots on the ground” became something of a mantra for Obama officials as they began making their case to Congress and the public for a U.S. strike. Speaking to reporters in London on September 9, Kerry went so far to as to say that any U.S. intervention would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
Second, the Obama administration is very keen to avoid doing anything that would bring down Assad’s regime. Prior to the Ghouta attack, it had rejected calls for direct U.S. military intervention against Assad, such as the imposition of a no-fly zone. This hands-off approach stemmed from the realization that it would be very difficult to keep U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war limited, as NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya demonstrated. Administration officials are deeply concerned about what would happen if U.S. military strikes caused Assad’s government to collapse. The secular opposition to Assad is divided and disorganized, riven by internal rivalries and conflicting objectives. Many of its leaders and rank and file are hostile toward the United States and, not infrequently, each other. In addition, Sunni militants have assumed an increasingly important role in the rebellion against Assad since late 2012, and their effectiveness on the battlefield has caused their ranks to swell. The leader of one of the two largest extremist groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has sworn his allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Assad’s sudden downfall, then, would likely leave Syria engulfed in an even more violent and chaotic state that it is in right now, and could result in Sunni Islamists taking control of part or all of Syria. While the Obama administration continues to call for Assad to step down as part of a negotiated settlement, it does not want to do anything to cause his regime to disintegrate.
In short, a U.S. military response to the Ghouta attack would need to be powerful enough to be effective while limited enough to avoid weakening Assad’s hold on power or drawing the U.S. into the conflict. That’s a difficult needle to thread. In their public statements, at least, Obama and others in his administration have struggled to resolve this dilemma.
The strongest argument in favor of U.S. military action is that it is necessary to preserve U.S. credibility. As concerns began to mount a little over a year ago that Assad might employ his country’s substantial chemical arsenal against Syrian rebels, Obama and others in his administration issued a number of warnings to Damascus that doing so would invite U.S. intervention. On August 20, 2012, Obama told White House reporters that Washington had made clear its opposition to Syrian use of chemical weapons. “We have communicated in no uncertain terms . . . that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.” These comments were unscripted, but Obama reiterated this warning in a speech at the National Defense University on December 3. “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” On the same day, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “This is a red line for the United States.” Subsequent statements by administration officials have underscored that Syrian chemical weapons use would prompt a significant, albeit undefined, U.S. response.
These declarations, combined with Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons on a large scale, have put Obama in a bind. The U.S. and other governments had already concluded that Syria used such weapons on several occasions earlier this year, but the quantities used were small, as were the resulting casualties. Washington responded by announcing that it would begin providing lethal armaments to certain rebel groups in Syria – a moderate response to a relatively mild provocation. The Ghouta attack, however, was large enough to make Obama feel he had no choice but to respond forcefully. He almost certainly would prefer to continue his administration’s non-interventionist approach to Syria, but doing so after Assad ignored his warnings would make the United States seem like a paper tiger. The prevailing view among most U.S. foreign policy observers – and no doubt Obama’s inner circle – is that U.S. passivity would embolden Iran, North Korea, and other possible U.S. opponents to act against U.S. interests in the future while causing friendly governments to doubt U.S. security commitments and perhaps distance themselves from Washington down the road.
This concern about U.S. credibility merits a great deal of consideration. It should not be discounted. At the same time, dogged pursuit of credibility for its own sake without a reasoned understanding of one’s national interests can lead to disaster. The United States and the Soviet Union very nearly came to blows in 1962 because Kennedy believed that permitting Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba would destroy U.S. credibility, even though he felt that the missiles themselves did little to alter the strategic balance. That crisis was resolved largely in Washington’s favor, but it brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In Vietnam, too, the U.S. was motivated by its desire to uphold its credibility in the eyes of both the Soviet Union and its allies, but the result was a disastrous and unnecessary war. In addition, when the U.S. takes action solely to protect its credibility, it risks being unable to act when its national interests are genuinely threatened in other arenas. If it finds itself enmeshed in Syria’s conflict because of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the U.S. ability to respond to a crisis in the Persian Gulf or the East China Sea, for instance, will likely be constrained. U.S. credibility is a vital element of its foreign policy, but upholding it should not be policymakers’ only consideration.
Obama would have been wise to avoid drawing his red line a year ago. If he had, he wouldn’t have found himself forced to threaten military action against Syria in the face of domestic opposition and minimal international support. Assad’s stated willingness to comply with the recent U.S.-Russian agreement on the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal is an interesting development, one that has put the U.S. military option on ice for the moment. But the odds against this initiative succeeding are long, since it will depend greatly on Assad’s cooperation. If the Syrian dictator proves as intransigent as many expect, Obama will likely find himself right back where he was a week ago, trying to persuade a skeptical Congress and public that military action against Syria is in America’s best interests.
-- Richard Purcell