Obama on the wrong side of the red line

Obama on the wrong side of the red line
Comment: Obama's failure to respect the 'red line' that he drew on chemical weapons, demonstrates a foreign policy preoccupied with 'getting his legacy right' at home, writes Robert Springborg.
7 min read
12 Oct, 2016
Most agree 'the red line' opened the door to more intensified Syrian regime atrocities [Getty]

The defining event of the Obama Administration was the red line he drew on August 20 2012, against Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, which he then chose to ignore just over a year later when Assad's forces used sarin gas to kill more than 1,400 residents of a Damascus suburb.

Key to the Obama legacy, as attested to by the fact that Jeffrey Goldberg devoted almost the first quarter of his famous The Atlantic article on the Obama Doctrine to it, it should come as little surprise that Obama and his personal staff have recently gone into overdrive trying to put a positive spin on what almost universally was seen as a catastrophic back down.

There is little disagreement, other than from the Obama camp, that it opened the door to further intensification of Syrian regime atrocities against its people, chasing them from their country in the millions, while enabling Russian re-entry into the Middle East coupled with the resurgence of Islamist violent extremism.

Obama cannot present the back down as a joint decision of his national security team. Three Secretaries of Defense and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the CIA head and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all stated unequivocally that they opposed the President's decision, wanted military force to be used, and regret that it was not.

Indeed, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said that Obama simply lost his nerve. When Hagel objected to Obama calling off the already planned military strike, he was "stabbed in the back" by Obama's clique.

So the challenge of putting a positive spin on Obama's "red line" has been profound, as indicated by the fact that several explanations have been trialed, then altered or withdrawn as they failed to gain traction.

The initial line of defense was that Obama had been "misunderstood". Less than a week after the fateful decision he stated in a press conference that "I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line."

He proceeded to argue that the red line was in fact drawn by global conventions and by Congress, the latter when it ratified the relevant treaty. He further implied that since his threat to retaliate if Assad crossed the red line was based on the Chemical Weapons Convention, which does not authorise the use of unilateral force by any party, his was not in fact a military threat.

Obama cannot present the back down as a joint decision of his national security team

This evasive "clarification" ignored two direct references to the use of military force in the famous press conference on August 20, 2012, in which he declared the red line. It also failed to reference the April 25 2013, letter from Obama's White House assistant, Miguel Rodriguez, to Congress, reaffirming the red line and stating as directly as possible, albeit without using the term military force, that indeed, it would be used.

This initial, disingenuous effort, along with the one to present the decision as emanating from the national security team, were then quietly put aside as they were too clearly at odds with the facts.

Subsequent lines of defense have been increasingly contorted. The first one was that the agreement brokered by the Russians to remove the chemical weapons was an historic diplomatic breakthrough regarding use of chemical weapons that prevented their use in Syria, probably against Israel and possibly elsewhere.

Coupled with this justification was that it would have taken "boots on the ground" to deny Assad use of those weapons, so a very risky proposition.

This two-pronged argument ignores the fact that the regime has in fact used chemical weapons repeatedly since they were allegedly removed; that the intensification of killing since the agreement was reached indicates that mass killing has not depended on chemical weapons; and that Assad had no reason to use chemical or any other weapons against Israel.

A related justification was that the US initiative prevented Israel from taking unilateral action to defend itself, thus possibly leading to a wider Middle East war. This of course ignores the contradiction that if Obama's team perceived it as being too risky to intervene, then surely the Israelis would have faced even greater risks both in the removal of chemical weapons and in the possible use of them against themselves.

It now seems that team Obama has decided the best defense is an aggressive offence

Both arguments involving Israel seem to be efforts to draw the pro-Israeli lobby in behind the Obama defense. This interpretation is reinforced by Obama's statement to Goldberg when discussing the red line that "It would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States not to defend Israel."

That Obama chose to say nothing about the more than 10 million Syrians displaced or quarter of a million killed since his back down indicates not only his lack of humanitarian concern, but his preoccupation with "getting his legacy right" and the need, therefore, to cultivate pro-Israelis in that effort. Syrians simply don't count for him in this and maybe other regards.

It now seems that team Obama has decided the best defense is an aggressive offence, led by the President himself. In the Goldberg interview earlier this year Obama claimed "I'm very proud of this moment... There's a playbook in Washington... that prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses."

He went on to say that "the playbook can be a trap," causing Goldberg to observe that August 30 2013, was Obama's "liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of American's frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East."

Might Assad have been copying his Iranian patrons, who possibly used their nuclear program as a bargaining chip?

Goldberg goes on to identify those allies principally as Arabs, who according to one of his sources in the Obama Administration believes are aggressively represented by unnamed think tanks on Washington's Massachusetts Avenue, "Arab-occupied territory" in his words.

So again, the pitch is being made to supporters of Israel on the basis that enforcing the red line would have been tantamount to Obama selling out to the Arabs.

Apart from the gyrations, misrepresentations and questionable appeals to pro-Israelis as part of Obama's red line defense, there is the more important question of the actual role of chemical weapons in the broader issue of what to do about Syria.

Just how important were they to Assad? Were they central to his strategy, or might they have been "bait," used to hook the Obama Administration and divert its attention from the broader Assad strategy of ethnic cleansing of much of the country?

Indeed, might Assad have been copying his Iranian patrons in this regard, who possibly used their nuclear program as a bargaining chip, getting Obama to pay a very high price to remove it from the table?

Under Obama, foreign policy decision-making has been absolutely preoccupied with its reception by the US public

At a minimum the Obama Administration should in August, 2013, have carefully considered how vital chemical and nuclear weapons were to Assad and the Iranians rather than extracting them out of the broader strategies in which they were likely embedded.

What might have been the consequences of Assad repeating or escalating his use of chemical weapons?

It might well have been the case that their re-use would have been a casus belli for much of the rest of the world, causing, for example, the British parliament to revisit its negative vote on the use of force, to say nothing of rendering defense of Assad by the Russians in the Security Council untenable.

So it is reasonable to ask whether or not Assad, who is a brutal killer but not a fool, would have used them on large scale again and then if he did, whether that might not have been to the advantage of those wanting to remove him?

These vital questions were not apparently asked then or now by Obama and his defenders. They are narrowly focused on explaining away this catastrophic decision, not on trying to figure out whether they were gamed by Assad and his backers or not, and what the broader lessons for a more successful Middle East strategy might be.

Such is the sad and sorry state of US foreign policy decision making. Under Obama it has been absolutely preoccupied with its reception by the US public and among those who will determine his legacy.

The consequences of his decisions for others, or for the actual good of the US count for little if anything if judged by the comparatively scant time and effort devoted to those, more substantive analyses.      

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.