President Obama’s critics are lamenting last year’s “red line” speech in which he said the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons would change the “calculus” of the situation. In other words, the use of chemical weapons would force a policy change from the West, perhaps even the use of some sort of military force.
Since that time, Syria appears to have used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians on multiple occasions. This provoked not action but nuanced inaction on the part of the administration. Critics dubbed the “red line” as a “pink line.” Perhaps “The Thick Red Line”—a play on the movie title—is more appropriate. The Assad regime is on the line, but not over it, apparently.
Journalists and commentators are now asking if military force is appropriate. To answer in the affirmative would prompt more questions regarding the nature, size, and scope of any force.
Ironically, the Obama administration seems reluctant to use force against the Syrian regime to stop the active use of chemical weapons while the Bush administration, ten years earlier, used force against an Iraqi regime everyone believed had chemical and biological weapons as well as a nuclear weapons program. Iraq had used such weapons in the past, but was not doing so at the time; so here we have a contrast of sorts: weapons in use = no force, and weapons that might be used = force.
But observers should not be surprised at the Obama administration’s inaction, especially when each of the aforementioned cases is viewed in its proper context.
Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off after a major terrorist attack on the United States, and with the premise that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be shared with terrorists. Regardless of historical revisions, this was a common fear at the time, and practically everyone of import believed Saddam Hussein possessed these weapons. But eventually, the operation turned into one of nation-building, with ups and downs, and it dragged on for years beyond expectation. President George W. Bush, Republicans, and some allies paid a huge political price for efforts that probably had the best of intentions.
In light of the Iraq experience—and Afghanistan, for that matter—it is understandable that an American president would be reluctant to embark on a new overseas military commitment.
Today, many observers want Western military intervention in Syria. The Syrian civil war, the use of chemical weapons, and the West’s inaction (thus far) arouse memories of Iraq, Rwanda, and other atrocities where major powers did little to nothing to stop them.
In other words, President Obama has a choice: He can do very little (new sanctions, for instance, or even some air strikes) and he will be labeled as morally bankrupt for not doing enough; or, he can lead a coalition of our allies in a major military operation, up to and including ground forces, and risk another Iraq—and in the process become another president bogged down in a nation building effort by trying to do too much. Even if the administration arrives at some middle ground—trying to change the regime through surrogates or with special forces and air power, for instance—such a response could be described as both too tepid and too extreme. Put another way: damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
Again, the basic arguments in favor of military intervention are familiar: humanitarianism and denying al Qaeda types a new safe haven. But given recent history, the policy makers’ decisions are likely to be different, and this should come as no surprise. And one should not be shocked if the thick red line continues getting thicker and bolder.