Obama, Too, Learns Dangers of Mideast Red Lines

Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama, though he artfully articulated the need to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, is haunted by his own actions and words, as well as those of the man he succeeded.

With no good options, the president made a persuasive case over the weekend for taking action against the “heinous” crime of chemical warfare, and assured a war-weary nation that any military mission would be “limited in duration and scope.”

An immediate response was ruled out, however, as the administration sent Congress a draft resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria, even though that is likely to entail an ugly debate involving attacks on the administration’s policies and credibility from the political left and the right.

But acting now and alone -- the U.K. has dropped out of any coalition of the willing, and the United Nations is calling for delay -- would have been worse. There is lingering resentment about Obama’s stretching of the interpretation of the executive’s war powers and brushing aside Congress in the campaign to topple Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011. An NBC News poll published Aug. 30 found that almost 80 percent of the public wanted congressional approval for any military action in Syria.

Obama also is a victim of his own rhetoric. He first drew a “red line” last year, vowing that any use of weapons of mass destruction by Bashar al-Assad would be unacceptable. It seems clear, say lawmakers who’ve been briefed, that Assad ordered the most recent attack, and it wasn’t the first. Critics of intervention are now asking, if we strike now, what do we do when Assad does it again?

Iraq War

All this is being debated in the context of George W. Bush’s extraordinary duplicity a decade ago when the U.S. invaded Iraq to remove weapons of mass destruction that proved to be a myth. The result: tragic loss of life, treasure, a region even further destabilized, and the loss of U.S. credibility.

Given that history, the U.K. Parliament’s refusal last week to support military action in Syria may seem wrong, but not irrational.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, one of many former top officials who are rarely consulted by this White House (he ran the Pentagon during the Kosovo air attacks in 1999), worries that the president’s plans for Syria are merely tactical, without a clear strategic objective or mission. Has the administration, for instance, seriously considered the likelihood that Russia and Iran will resupply Assad immediately after a strike? Will anything the U.S. does, Cohen wonders, make Assad think, “Hey, we might lose this thing, let’s negotiate a settlement.”

Others worry about being dragged into a protracted engagement.

“Unless the administration gets real lucky, they’re in a terrible box,” says Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. diplomat. The president has to respond, he says, though there is the danger of “an incremental drip by drip intervention.”

That would be a disaster. After Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. voters won’t tolerate another war unless critical national interests are at stake.

That’s why one of the wisest foreign policy intellectuals of our age, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, argues that the president should forgo a feel-good strike and should use the occasion to try to mobilize a global movement to head off a dangerous regional conflict. Use the UN to condemn the use of chemical weapons -- leaving open the question of who used them -- then, try to convince the Russians that it’s also in their interest to avoid a huge conflagration in the Middle East.

There’s not much indication the Obama administration has any inclination to take on such a daunting task.

Tough Words

As we think through this moment, it’s worth remembering another time a U.S. president drew a red line and declared that his critics might be willing to capitulate, but not him. In short order, he retreated.

That was President Ronald Reagan and Lebanon, almost 30 years ago.

In October 1983, 241 U.S. servicemen were killed when a truck bomb struck their barracks in Beirut. A little more than three months later, Reagan, facing pressure from Democrats in Congress for a withdrawal, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. had to show resolve by staying the course in Lebanon. He took aim at one of his critics, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill: “He may be ready to surrender, but I’m not.”

Four days later, Reagan ordered the Marines to begin leaving Beirut. He later explained in his memoirs that the “irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy.”

This doesn’t suggest a retreat is in order today. It is a reminder to avoid setting red lines unless the consequences are carefully considered and we understand the politics of the Middle East are worse, and more dangerous, than ever.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

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