US Credibility Requires More than Enforcing Red Lines on Syria

Obama-Biden-Phone

by Robert E. Hunter

“…my credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.”
— President Barack Obama, Stockholm, September 4, 2013

President Obama and other US supporters of attacking Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons have based much of their argument on the issue of credibility. In particular, will other nations (and non-national elements, like terrorist groups) take seriously US declarations if we do not now follow through on preserving Obama’s “red line?”

This question relates to one of the most important elements of statecraft, especially for the United States, which presents itself as the “indispensable nation” and is seen by many others to be so. Further, if the US does not take the lead in trying to reestablish the prohibition on chemical weapons, no one else will do so.

More generally, if the US were seen as being haphazard or even indifferent to the commitments it makes, especially regarding the use of force in specified circumstances, bad results could ensue. Enemies could seek to exploit what they would perceive as American weakness; allies and partners could be less certain that the US would come to their assistance when they were threatened in some way.

This was the conundrum that bedeviled every US administration during the Cold War, as it sought to reassure European allies that the US, even at the price of its own destruction, would use nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union was not, through such US commitment, deterred from aggression against the West.

At this point, with Syria’s violating Mr. Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons, reinforced by his declaration last weekend that he will use force, he has no choice but to do so. That will be true even if Congress votes down the authorization he has sought (which it is unlikely to do) and even if he now goes to the United Nations for a mandate to act (which UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China would veto). Obama has “nailed his colors to the mast,” and failing to follow through, it is argued, would have consequences. Contrary to his recent statement in Stockholm, his credibility as president and commander-in-chief is, indeed, “on the line,” certainly in Washington’s unforgiving politics.

But what are those “consequences?” Are all red lines equally significant? Does failure to honor every declared commitment, formal or informal, large or small, always mean that other US commitments will not be taken seriously? It is hard to accept that proposition at face value — and countries which have tested it have rued the day. Indeed, like beauty, credibility is very much “in the eye of the beholder.”

Certainly, some commitments are more important than others. It would not matter if the president promised to quit smoking and did not; but it would matter very much if he pledged to defend the nation against a terrorist attack and sat idly by in face of another 9/11. “Credibility” must thus be seen on a sliding scale, and deciding where on this scale a particular commitment lies is a matter of judgment. (It is also important not to declare a “red line” if it does not truly relate to US national security interests, as Obama did in the current instance.) This is a major reason that most US security commitments take the form of treaties, ratified by the Senate.

The first requirement is to match the commitment to an objective reality of US security needs, as clearly understood both by the US and others. While deterring the use of chemical weapons is desirable and has a long history stemming in particular from World War I, what has happened in Syria does not directly impact on the security of the United States (chemical weapons have also accounted for less than two percent of casualties in the Syrian civil war, to which the “international community” has been largely indifferent). It is not like the attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11. It is not like Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which put at risk a large fraction of the world’s exportable hydrocarbons. Had the United States not responded with military force to these direct threats, allies could rightly have wondered about American willpower, and enemies could have tested it elsewhere. Not only would US security have been put in jeopardy, so would the confidence that others have reposed in us. That is not now the case in Syria. Nor, despite the president’s assertion, is this a matter of the international community’s credibility, an effort to spread the responsibility and show the American people that the US is just the agent of a broad consensus. The risk in making that assertion is that a large fraction of the world’s nations do not agree that attacking Syria will help, and that list goes far beyond Russia, China and Iran.

President Obama has made attacking Syria a matter of US credibility. But that can arguably also be less a matter of objective reality, based on cool analysis, than the need to build congressional and popular support for a decision already taken. He can thus raise the stakes to try building political support for a decision he has already made. He knows there is little or no risk of US casualties, given the reliance on stand-off weapons, as was done most recently in the Libya conflict. Given that fact, what objection can there be to making a demonstration of military force, which might encourage “the others” to think twice about using chemical weapons?

The problem lies not in trying to fence off this particularly odious weapon, but in what happens after the US punishes Syria. It is one thing to argue that American credibility is at stake, it is quite another to ignore what has to be a key requirement in establishing that credibility, as well as demonstrating US leadership: laying out a convincing strategy for the Day After. The idea that a limited use of force can teach the Assad regime a lesson without escalating the conflict even further and tipping the balance in favor of the rebels assumes precision in the use of military force that has few if any historical precedents.

And if Assad were toppled, what then? The Syrian civil war pits the Alawite minority rulers against the majority of the population. Assad’s overthrow would likely produce revenge-taking and a bloodbath far worse than what has happened so far, and whoever gains power in Damascus would be unlikely to put US interests high on the agenda.

The Syrian conflict is also part of a larger civil war in the heart of the Middle East that, in its current phase, began with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. In getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the US also deposed a minority Sunni government that had ruled over Iraq’s Shia majority for centuries. Since then, several Sunni Arab states (plus Turkey) have sought to right the balance; their efforts to overthrow the Alawites in Syria are just grist to that mill. But the United States certainly has no interest in becoming party to a Sunni-Shia conflict. Quite the reverse: the US and the West need that conflict to end and at least avoid adding fuel to the fire.

In trying to show Congress that the US is not alone in wanting to punish the Syrian government, the administration is underscoring the strong support of Arab states. They want to enlist the United States as their instrument in overthrowing Syria’s Alawite rule and supplement the arms they have been sending the rebels, buttressed by the intervention of Islamist terrorists, many from their own countries — terrorists who see both the Shia and the West (the US in particular) as enemies.

Why then, make such a matter over “credibility” in Syria? To cut to the chase: the real issue of demonstrating US credibility, today, is not about Syria but about Iran. In addition to setting a red line against Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons, President Obama has regularly pledged to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons with “all options are on the table.” That is far more serious business because nuclear weapons are much more consequential than chemical weapons. Already, Arab states and Israel are arguing that if Obama does not honor his red line commitment in Syria (a relatively minor concern in international security terms), he might not honor his much more important red line regarding an Iranian bomb.

That argument presumes that the US is incapable of weighing the relative importance of different threats or “red lines.” An Iranian bomb could have much greater consequences for US security (though how much is at least debatable) than what is happening in Syria, and whatever the US does in Syria is unlikely to impact its calculations about Iran’s nuclear program.

The false debate over US credibility in Syria is only part of the problem. More important is whether, in the process of trying to reestablish a prohibition against one weapon of warfare, a US attack will cause the Syrian conflict to spread and draw the US more deeply into the Middle East morass. This could also intensify Israel’s concerns about its security, not just regarding Iran, but in particular about potential Islamist terrorism emanating from “liberated” Syria. The US attack will also undercut the ability of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, to risk engaging the West diplomatically to end the stalemate over its nuclear program. (The administration and Congress have already done their best to throw cold water on possibilities that might emerge from Rouhani’s election.) And that could increase the chances that, at some point, the US will face the terrible dilemma about whether to attack Iran.

Unfortunately, despite assertions to the contrary, the administration has not adequately attempted to resolve the Syrian conflict through diplomacy. Since early on in the Syrian conflict, Obama said that Bashar al-Assad must go and thus ensured that his government would not negotiate. In his first months as Secretary of State, John Kerry should have devoted himself to Syria; instead he pursued Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, which every experienced negotiator knows can go nowhere while Israel faces real security challenges on at least three fronts (Syria, Iran and Egypt). And Obama is now in Europe, not trying to put together a Syrian peace process, but rather pursuing his domestic political need to convince Congress that we have strong international support for attacking Syria.

The US will attack Syria. But as it does, the Obama administration needs to focus on business far more important for US interests: beginning, finally, to create a viable, integrated, coherent strategy for the Middle East that recognizes all of its many regional facets and has some chance of success, however long it takes and however difficult the task. That plus a full-court press for diplomacy on Syria is where the US should now place its emphasis, not focusing on punishing the Syrian government which, however successful, won’t lead toward peace and security in the region.

This is what it means to be a great power. This is where US credibility abroad is truly at stake.

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Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent article though I would respectfully disagree on several of its points.

    For example, if the U.S. is to be at least relevant, if not indispensable, does it not have an obligation to get it right before it demands action? And if, as it is beginning to turn out, the rebels and their Saudi handlers were the responsible parties, and the Administration’s ‘evidence’ was either fabricated or based on flawed Israeli intelligence, wouldn’t this mean that the U.S. would have to come down hard on them after a full investigation were completed?

    You note, “[a]t this point, with Syria’s violating Mr. Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons, reinforced by his declaration last weekend that he will use force, he has no choice but to do so.” Again, why presuppose a violation by Syria where the ‘evidence’ has not been shared with, or vetted by, independent experts- e.g. the U.N. forensic team- nor shared with the member nations of the Security Council, and contradicted by so much else in the public domain. (What we have heard from the Russians is that all they given were a list of allegations, which is what Kerry in his disingenuous fulminations has shared with the rest of us.) And, if one is going to treat chemical weapons as WMD, and draw a ‘red line’ with it, then why not also do the same for depleted (and enriched, as we are learning may have been used in Fallujah) uranium weapons and phosphorus bombs which are as lethal, and in the case of the former are resulting in genetic mutation of the most horrible kind. And why not establish a nuclear free zone in the Middle East? In other words, if the U.S. as a credible superpower wishes to deal with chemical weapons, it will have to do right by much more that is implicated here.

    Your point that: “[t]he first requirement is to match the commitment to an objective reality of US security needs, as clearly understood both by the US and others,” is the crux of it all. But does that not also presuppose that the underlying narrative or intelligence must be grounded in fact and truth, and that any show or use of force be necessary, cost effective and a best use of diplomatic and/or military resources in achieving the national security objectives. (In this regard, your reference to the legitimacy of Gulf War One, might itself be questioned, when it was clear that the deadline set by GHWBush and Cheney for Saddam to remove his troops from Kuwait could not be met, while at the same time it was reported that Saddam had agreed to remove them as soon as possible thereafter. (That is, for want of three weeks instead of one did we engage in costly carnage that could have been avoided?) I also find it ironic that in that war we predicated our action on the inviolability of borders of a UN Member State, while ever since 2001, including now under Obama with his wars in Libya and Syria and so many other ‘hotspots’, we have embarked on a reconfiguration of the Middle East and a shredding of the territorial integrity of its nations to meet undeclared geopolitical and energy security goals.

    You also say, “[u]nfortunately, despite assertions to the contrary, the administration has not adequately attempted to resolve the Syrian conflict through diplomacy. Since early on in the Syrian conflict, Obama said that Bashar al-Assad must go and thus ensured that his government would not negotiate. In his first months as Secretary of State, John Kerry should have devoted himself to Syria; instead he pursued Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, which every experienced negotiator knows can go nowhere while Israel faces real security challenges on at least three fronts (Syria, Iran and Egypt). And Obama is now in Europe, not trying to put together a Syrian peace process, but rather pursuing his domestic political need to convince Congress that we have strong international support for attacking Syria.”

    Good points all. However, perhaps we must ask ourselves if this Administration has ever wanted peace in Syria and the rest of the region unless it could get it entirely on its own terms. Whether or not the Administration admits to it, the U.S. as its clandestine author and midwife owns the war in Syria, having conceived, planned, and nursed it, and in the process devastated that nation’s civil society, all in order to topple Assad, replace him with a puppet, carve up Syria into balkanized regions, meet the energy and geopolitical objectives of itself and its allies, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, and defeat or obstruct those of Iran, Russia and China.

    Moreover, if it wished, the U.S. could bring the parties to the peace table more quickly than it has been willing to admit. How? Start by cutting off the $100 a day or other small fortune Al Nusra and the other mercenary jihadists are reported to be earning, stop sending arms, ammunition and supplies and demand that the Saudis and Turks do the same- and that they ferry out the mercenaries, all of them- and then accept Assad’s offer of cease fire in exchange for the Syrian opposition laying down their arms and sitting together at the negotiating table. As for that non-starter precondition that Assad remove himself from political office permanently- drop it, once and for all. That’s something for Syrians to decide, not a bunch of trigger happy officials at the NSC and State Department or fat cats in Congress who are clueless about Syria, the Middle East and its mosaic of cultures and political movements, and who see it all through an Israeli intelligence lens of self-interest.

    One fears that you are right, the U.S. will attack, but such an attack would be perceived by most Americans and the rest of the world as naked aggression, no matter what rhetorical gymnastics or contortions John Kerry and President Obama, or their Congressional allies might put themselves through to cloud the issue.

    One hopes that the Administration and Congress will heed the wisdom in your last three paragraphs. Unfortunately, Obama and his handlers have missed so many opportunities already and are so deeply imbedded with Israel and Saudi Arabia, that one can only assume they think more of the same policies will get them to nirvana even as they fall deeper and deeper into the abyss.

  2. Perhaps the next time it comes up, “O” will use some other metaphor instead of copying what Netanyahoo came up with. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. “O” appears more & more as time goes by, that of an incompetent way over his head person, who doesn’t have the good sense to come in out of the rain. Shifting the blame over his use of the term “Red Line” as he’s done, shows his inability to admit he’s a dupe. How any man can continually allow some other country/leader to make him out to be a spineless fool, which reflects upon the nation as a whole, is just plain mind boggling. Face it, the death toll from bombing Syria will really go up if not off the chart, and what will be left?

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