At least there was one useful outcome from the war in Iraq: Western governments no longer have the luxury of being able to launch wars based on pretexts that escape careful scrutiny. We are no longer purely at the mercy of rumors from shadowy figures like “Curveball.” We are however still vulnerable to specious lines of reasoning.
Here’s how the current hoax is operating largely without impediment:
President Obama set a “red line” a year ago on Syria’s use of chemical weapons — except it wasn’t red and it wasn’t a line.
In August last year, Obama 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. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
Even if the phrase “being utilized” seemed unambiguous, it certainly wasn’t clear what “whole bunch” and “moving around” were supposed to mean.
Over the following year, following reports of chemical weapons indeed being assembled, moved around, and utilized, Obama’s red line seemed to morph and its implied meaning became that if Assad used chemical weapons and killed a whole bunch of Syrians then the line would have been crossed.
Yet even if an implied definition of the red line emerged, to call it red always suggested that on the other side of the line there was some tangible threat — yet there never was. Obama had said that if Assad crossed the line, this would change Obama’s “calculus” and “equation.” That could mean anything. It could for instance mean that such an action would change Obama’s opinion about Assad and his regime.
When the Bush-style phrase “red line” slipped from Obama’s lips, it seems he instantly recognized he’d made a mistake and so his effort at damage control was to give his red line an indecipherable definition. But it didn’t work. In political discourse, “red line,” is a much stronger meme than “change my calculus.”
So, even if Obama did not think he was committing himself to military action a year ago, that’s what he did.
The argument he had inadvertently constructed was simple and moronic: If Assad uses chemical weapons, America will become directly engaged in the war in Syria.
If the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces can be proved, then U.S. military action logically follows.
Almost everyone now, having become slaves to that logic, is insisting on seeing the proof that chemical weapons have been used, yet fewer challenge the logic itself.
Let’s suppose that over the next week or so, the Obama administration can put together a very compelling case based on detailed intelligence and forensic evidence that chemical weapons were used and that they were indeed used by Assad’s own forces. Obama by that point will have won three-quarters of the argument. The doubters will have been sidelined and the proponents of military action further empowered.
Yet military action to what end?
Assad misbehaved and now he’s getting punished and if the punishment is suitably measured he won’t misbehave again?
Sorry, but psychology that might be applicable in a kindergarten probably isn’t applicable to a regime that is fighting for its survival.
Assad didn’t reach into a cookie jar without permission. After which having been appropriately scolded he can’t necessarily be expected to behave properly.
The regime might already be fragmenting and the risk of further use of chemical weapons might not come from them falling into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra — it may come from units inside the Syrian army who are already in control of these weapons and who start to operate as independent militias.
Obama’s real calculus now is the worst one upon which any decision to engage in military action can be based: how can I avoid looking weak? He wants to fire just enough cruise missiles so that he and the United States can avoid getting mocked and not so many that they provoke retaliation. To accomplish what?
The use of military action for no other purpose than as a show of strength is really a demonstration of the opposite — a fear of appearing weak.
If Obama really wants to engage in an action that could have tangible positive results — though it would require immense political courage — he should set aside his strike plans and target lists and pick up the phone to call Tehran.*
President Hassan Rouhani is fluent in English, has a doctorate in constitutional law, and Iran has more political leverage in Syria than any other country in the region. Iranians also have had the experience of being victims of chemical warfare. If anyone has the power to break the stalemate in Syria, it’s Iran. Indeed, a diplomatic opening between Washington and Tehran would probably act as a much more powerful incentive than any other for Bashar al-Assad to start exercising caution and stop killing so many of his people.
*This suggestion comes from Marsha B. Cohen of Lobe Log.