Over a year after Barack Obama issued his infamous “red line” warning to Syria, we are still debating about how to handle Syria's civil war.
On August 20, 2012, Barack Obama made this statement: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus, that would change my equation.”
Since that date, there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria. Close to 100,000 people have been killed, according to some reports. The latest attack took place last week, killing as many as a thousand people. So what do we do? We send in a team from the United Nations to investigate whether or not chemical weapons were used. At this point (days after the attack), it may be impossible for them to determine whether or not chemical weapons were used because of time and the use of other weapons, which could destroy the evidence. Today we get reports that the UN inspectors were shot at in their vehicles by snipers.
The White House has since stepped up its preparations to respond, but it is emphasizing the need for international cooperation. According to the Wall Street Journal, “In recent days, the Pentagon has moved more warships into place in the eastern Mediterranean and U.S. war planners have updated military options that include cruise-missile strikes on regime targets, officials said. The White House held high-level meetings over the weekend, but officials said late Sunday that Mr. Obama had yet to decide how to proceed.” The article goes on to read, “Officials who support intervening say the biggest danger for the U.S. would be for Mr. Obama to threaten to take military action now and then not follow through.”
Are we too late in responding in Syria? The evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime before last week is pretty overwhelming. About 100,000 have been killed in this civil war, and the world has stood on the sidelines and failed to step up in defense of human rights. Why are we willing to step in now, versus a year ago – What has really changed?
Because Obama issued his “red line” ultimatum, I believe that this placed the United States in a position of action. But the problem is that we, thus far, have failed to act. This is dangerous because of the message of weakness it sends to other countries like Iran and North Korea. And as the WSJ points out, if Obama now threatens military action but then doesn't follow through, this escalates our image of weakness. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for boots on the ground war in Syria. But we need to be mindful of the messages that Obama is sending with his rhetoric versus his action (or inaction).
Ultimately I believe the situation in Syria points to the weakness of our president and our new-found strategy of leading from behind. We'll see where that gets us, but my guess is that it won't improve our standing throughout the world, nor will it make us safer.