The Wrong Red Line

Published August 28, 2013

National Review Online

Our coming intervention in Syria already looks like a no-win proposition. If we go heavy, we’re liable to empower al-Qaeda and assorted jihadists, or tie ourselves down excessively. If we go light, we’ll seem like paper tigers. Obama’s foolish decision to turn chemical weapons use into a red line is what got us into this mess. We wouldn’t be acting now had he not trapped himself with a bluff he thought Assad would never call.

When Samantha Power’s humanitarian interventionism first emerged as an explanation for the war in Libya, many found it hard to take the administration’s stated justification for action at face value. It’s true that pleasing Egypt’s “liberal” revolutionaries by going after Gaddafi was a partial motive for the war in Libya (another mistake). Yet Obama truly shares Power’s vision of utopian interventionism, even if he’s somewhat less inclined to take political risks on its behalf than she is. We wouldn’t have gone into Libya had Gaddafi not threatened Benghazi.

This time, it’s clear that we wouldn’t be acting in Syria had Assad not used chemical weapons. As Max Boot put it, prior to the gas attack there was “approximately zero chance” that America would intervene in Syria. Obama painted himself into a corner by explicitly calling chemical weapons use a red line last year. At the time it seemed like a cost-free way of endorsing Power’s vision. It no longer does.

Supporters and opponents of the Syrian intervention agree that simply lobbing a few cruise missiles at chemical weapons storage-areas will be useless or worse. Any attack that Assad easily survives will make us look weak, turning our “red lines” into jokes.

There’s a lesson here. Humanitarian interventions seem to be limited and discrete. Threaten to massacre a city, and we block you. Use chemical weapons and we take them out. In practice, however, it doesn’t work that way. Once we enter a conflict on humanitarian grounds, anything short of well-executed regime-change tends to make us look weak.

By defining chemical weapons use as a “red line,” instead of one factor among many to be judged in context at the moment of use, we allow humanitarian concerns to compel huge, risky, and difficult-to-control adventures that go way beyond their initial stated purpose. The alternative is to come off looking ineffective by ignoring our declared limits of tolerance. In other words, all we achieve by drawing humanitarian lines before-the-fact is to surrender control of our own foreign policy.

Obama thought turning chemical weapons use into a red line in Syria would be cost free. Why would Assad be stupid enough to cross us? After all, hadn’t he seen what we did to Gaddafi? He had, but it didn’t matter. This is partly because Assad is desperately fighting for his life, and partly because Libya itself was a very mixed signal.

We famously “led from behind” there. Fearful of suffering casualties, we avoided close-in air support and allowed our allies’ overstretched forces do most of the work. Victory in Libya was touch-and-go for quite some time. After we won, we avoided sending troops to secure the country. Chaos, the disaster of our ambassador’s murder, and the administration’s bogus cover-story soon followed.

Obama nonetheless believed that Assad would never dare cross his humanitarian red line. This shows that the business of drawing lines against certain kinds of international behavior cannot properly be separated from overall assessments of our behavior. Attempts to lay down discrete markers on humanitarian violations quickly get tangled up in other issues. In the end, the fact that we kept Gaddafi out of Benghazi on humanitarian grounds didn’t matter. The fact that our ambassador got killed in Benghazi did.

So it wasn’t enough to protect Benghazi from invasion. It wasn’t even enough to depose Gaddafi. All this did was expose our fear of casualties and unwillingness to secure our victory with an occupation. That refusal to occupy Libya was quite sensible, given the country’s strategic insignificance. Yet the overall effect of Libya wasn’t to keep Assad from using chemical weapons. It was to make him believe we would never truly follow through on our threat to police the red line.

Now we’re stuck in the same old mess. We’ll hit Assad in some way, but we’ve already declared that regime-change is out as our goal. In the end, we’ll come off as weak, which means the next regime that thinks of using chemical weapons or razing a rebellious city will remain undeterred. We’ll keep on letting Samantha Power draw her humanitarian red lines, and they’ll keep on failing to scare the next perpetrator, precisely because they are out of synch with our strategic interests.

The answer is to repudiate Power’s policies. Don’t draw red lines ahead of time based on non-strategic considerations. Insofar as Power’s commitments diverge from our strategic interests, America will be harmed by following through on them. If, on the other hand, we protect our interests, undercutting Power’s message in the process, the cycle of failed deterrence will start again.

This is the dangerous mess Obama’s utopianism has landed us in.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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