Remember when, not so long ago, Barrack Obama promised to restore American credibility in the world? It’s now been five years since he was elected President, but nothing of that sort happened. Today, even Vladimir Putin feels bold enough to lecture America about foreign policy, and in the New York Times, no less. For an object lesson in how to not conduct foreign policy and lose credibility, students of international relations might wish to study how Obama drew a red line in Syria, and then pretended it never existed in the first place.
The story begins on September 4 2012, at a press conference in Sweden. The Syrian Civil War had already lasted for more than a year, with appalling casualties on both sides. From the Levant came further disquieting rumours: it was whispered that Bashar Al-Assad, hereditary President of Syria, was preparing to use chemical weapons against his country’s rebels. Chemical weapons having been declared to be verboten by international law, it seemed politic that the President of the United States, as the ex officio enforcer-in-chief of international morality, should make a statement. Here’s what he said:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Lest anyone think “red line” is a rhetorical flourish that had no substantive meaning, on April 25th 2013, a “White House official” said the following:
“We go on to reaffirm that the President has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us, nor should it be to the international community.“
Now, diplomacy depends on credibility, and if the President of the United States draws a “red line” for a certain dictator not to cross, then it befalls on him to make sure that the latter’s crossing of the line will expose the latter to swift and severe retribution. Otherwise, America will be left looking very foolish – a Great Power whose word isn’t its bond. But that’s exactly what happened.
On August 21st 2013, almost a year to the day after Obama drew that line, an invisible and odourless cloud began to spread over Ghouta, east of Damascus. At that time of the year, the place usually offers a pretty sight: in summers past the nearby capital’s weary inhabitants would go to the green belt there to have some repose. On that day, however, hundreds of bodies littered the ground. The Syrian Army had fired sarin-laden rockets into this rebel-occupied locality, bringing death and destruction all around. The red line had been crossed.
Or had it? Back in Washington, President Obama didn’t seem to remember the red line he drew at all. “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line”, said he. Then, “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” Suddenly, it averred that there was never an American red line at all. Had it vanished by magic? For ten days, nothing transpired from the White House about what course Obama was going to take. Then, on August 31st, he declared that he would seek permission from Congress before launching an attack against Syria.
However, it soon became clear that his asking for Congressional permission was a political dodge, rather than a sign of respect for constitutional niceties. That’s because Obama still maintained that as President, he had the power to intervene in Syria without the consent of the Congress, but that he would ask for it nevertheless, even though he does not think he has to (he intervened in Libya barely a year before without thinking of going to Congress). As Eric Posner, one of America’s foremost constitutional scholars said, “If Congress now approves the war, it must share blame with the president if what happens next in Syria goes badly. If Congress rejects the war, it must share blame with the president if Bashar al-Assad gases more Syrian children.”
On the “international community” front, things were also going disastrously for American credibility. Ten years earlier, George W. Bush had been able to assemble a coalition of several dozen countries to take action against Iraq. Obama, in contrast, only had Britain and France to his side, and the British House of Commons pronounced against intervention anyway, leaving America with exactly one ally. It was apparent that his administration had made no effort to assemble any kind of broad coalition against Syria. Eventually, even the pending Congressional authorization vote was scrapped, at Obama’s request. In short, Obama never meant to keep his “red line” promise.
A powerful lesson had been given to the world’s despots and rogues: America can threaten, but it will not act. Its promises are fair-weather ones, and are liable to be discarded at any time. Its Chief Executive will even lie about having made them. It’s a lesson that Iran’s Ayatollahs, whom Obama also threatened with some kind of red line about their nuclear program, won’t have missed.
And America’s allies surely will have taken notice too. How, for instance, can Israelis take seriously Obama’s promise that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, when they look at the Syrian episode? As Obama’s promises sound hollow now, a pre-emptive strike against Iran just became a more attractive idea for the Jewish state. And how seriously will Eastern Europeans take Obama’s promises of collective security against Russia, when Obama has allowed Vladimir Putin to upstage him as arbiter of international morality?
Obama’s vanishing red line is about more than Syria. It’s about American credibility in the world, which has suffered a grievous blow, thanks to the President’s inability to keep his promises and his selective amnesia about what he said before. Never before has a Great Power so utterly failed to live up to its promises, and the consequences will be dire. In 2008, many thought that Obama was the second coming of John F. Kennedy. In the end, he was really Jimmy Carter from Illinois.
– Yuan Yi Zhu
Featured photo: Tim . Simpson, Creative Commons, Flickr