Blake Hounshell reviews Obama’s “red line” statements on Syria and reaches this conclusion:
Now, maybe all this murkiness is defensible and sincere, and certainly the American people aren’t clamoring for another U.S. intervention in the Middle East, even though many in Washington are. But the point is, maybe the game hasn’t changed as much as today’s news reports would have us believe.
The administration is responsible for some of this confusion. The original statements of what constitutes a “red line” for the U.S. in Syria left too much room for interpretation, and the announcements of what administration officials believe happened in Syria have created more of a muddle. However, this wouldn’t matter that much if there weren’t so many people in and around Washington eager to find any excuse for war in Syria. Even though Obama never spelled out what would follow a “game-changing” use of chemical weapons, interventionists readily assumed that it meant that he would finally have to sign off on one or more of their recommendations. As many interventionists see it, if there was evidence of any use of such weapons, regardless of how limited or isolated it was, Obama would be forced to launch a new war. If Obama “fails” to do what he never actually promised to do, they will complain that he is jeopardizing U.S. credibility and the “taboo” against using chemical weapons. Indeed, Amitai Etzioni makes that complaint today:
Hence, if the Obama administration continues to dillydally, it will further undermine the credibility of the United States as a superpower, a position already shaken by its failing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Appeals to protecting credibility are often the last resort of the interventionist. Governments shouldn’t make threats they aren’t willing to carry out, but they should never be compelled to take foolish actions for the sake of preserving their credibility. The “taboo” against using chemical weapons isn’t observed around the world because governments fear the wrath of the U.S. military, but because there is a broad international consensus that using such weapons for any reason is abhorrent. States that have ratified the CWC aren’t suddenly going to begin manufacturing and using chemical weapons because the U.S. failed to launch an unnecessary war in Syria to punish Assad.
The real concern about credibility seems to be focused on Iran and East Asia. Etzioni writes:
In September of 2012, Obama insisted that declaring a red line in regard to Iran’s nuclear program as Netanyahu called for was not necessary, and would only acknowledge the nuclear bomb itself as the guaranteed point of action.
The repeated blurring of red lines is not merely troubling our allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, but also those in the Far East. They cannot but wonder if the United States will go to war with North Korea if it were to attack, say, South Korea or Japan.
We can dispense with the last objection very quickly. The U.S. is bound by formal treaty commitments to come to the defense of South Korea and Japan. No one anywhere seriously doubts that the U.S. will fulfill its treaty obligations to defend allies if they come under attack. This is nothing like the Iranian case, where the U.S. is the one threatening to attack if certain conditions are met. There is little reason to think that the U.S. won’t follow through on that threat in the event that Iran began to build nuclear weapons, and the “failure” to enforce a “red line” in Syria should have no effect on the credibility of that threat.