When is a Red Line not a Red Line? When there’s no Precedent for it.
” It was quiet in Washington—it had been a summer busy with dispatches on the golf game of President Obama, and on the new first puppy, Sunny, the Portuguese water dog, the newest addition to the White House. Bashar al-Assad had taken the full measure of powers beyond.” The Shame of Syria by Fouad Ajami
Mr Cameron is said to have been left sickened by images of children killed by the chemical weapons.
One charity yesterday said at least 355 people had died and 10 times that number were treated for poisoning.
Britain and France have blamed the Assad regime for the chemical attack.
(The charity in question, is Doctors without Borders. While the number of dead is significantly less than the 1300 or more claimed by the Syrian opposition, this number only represents what Doctors without Borders could confirm.)
If Bashar Assad has crossed a red line for Britain and France, did he cross one for the United States too?
— Sean Michael Thomas (@seanthomas_RT) August 25, 2013
Mark Landler and Michael Gordon of the New York Times report Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack:
A senior administration official said the Kosovo precedent was one of many subjects discussed in continuing White House meetings on the crisis in Syria. Officials are also debating whether a military strike would have unintended consequences, destabilize neighbors like Lebanon, or lead to even greater flows of refugees into Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.
“It’s a step too far to say we’re drawing up legal justifications for an action, given that the president hasn’t made a decision,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. “But Kosovo, of course, is a precedent of something that is perhaps similar.”
In the Mediterranean, the Navy’s regional commander postponed a scheduled port call in Naples, Italy, for a destroyer so that the ship would remain with a second destroyer in striking distance of Syria during the crisis. Pentagon officials said the decision did not reflect any specific orders from Washington, but both destroyers had on board Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range weapons that probably would be among the first launched against targets in Syria should the president decide to take military action.
(Jack Goldsmith argues that the Kosovo intervention was not meant as a precedent.)
The question is whether President Obama is looking for a reason to back up his “red line” comment of a year ago, or he is he simply trying to look deliberative?
Fred Kaplan of Slate argues for the former.
If he decides to use force, it’s the only position he could reasonably take. Given the threat, the humanitarian crisis, America’s standing in the region, and the importance of preserving international norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction, the best option might be to destroy huge chunks of the Syrian military, throw Assad’s regime off balance, and let those on the ground settle the aftermath.
On the other hand, former naval intelligence officer, J. E. Dyer sees the administration as posturing.
One, the deepest point of Syria is about 380 statute miles (600km) from the coast, but almost everything we might want to attack, to affect the Assad regime’s prosecution of the war, is less than 100 miles (160km) from the coast. The Tomahawk cruise missile, in the variant likely to be used (TLAM-C Block III), has a range of 1000 statute miles (1,600km). The less-likely TLAM-D has a range of 800 statute miles (1,250km). So U.S. Navy warships don’t have to get closer to Syria than the open waters of the central or east-central Mediterranean Sea.
This, in turn, means that no public explanations would ever be necessary – our warships are often in the central Mediterranean – and that the explanations are therefore being given, as verbosely as possible, for a reason. Presumably, it is to highlight, with fanfare, the fact that Obama is contemplating using cruise missiles against Assad. And that, presumably, is meant to warn and/or deter Assad.
— Sangwon Yoon (@sangwonyoon) August 25, 2013
Lately the administration sounds like it’s taking a harder stance.
— Allyn Fisher-Ilan (@AFilan) August 25, 2013
With good reason.
Important point! Mandate of UN inspection team does not allow for determining which party used CW in #Syria
— Andrew Tabler (@Andrewtabler) August 25, 2013
Even now, however, the idea of military intervention is politically unpopular.
New poll shows that Americans strongly oppose U.S. intervention in Syria: http://t.co/RJHTwHAI2s
— Yahoo News (@YahooNews) August 25, 2013
Though usually an interventionist, Obama booster, Thomas Friedman, isn’t bothered by the President’s inaction. In Foreign Policy by Whisper and Nudge, Friedman concludes:
Obama knows all of this. He just can’t say it. But it does explain why his foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.
I have no idea how well-connected into the administration Friedman is, but this sounds like an apology in advance for inaction. Though some legislators see military action as likely, (qualified by Sen. Bob Corker’s “in a surgical way” i.e. more symbolic than substantive) I’m still unconvinced that the administration is inclined to act.
While I won’t deny that there are no good choices here, still, last year the President set out red lines. If he’s not adhering to them, he is undercutting America’s ability to project its power.