The United States is on the brink of another military intervention in the Middle East–a punitive strike on the military installations of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Why? Because its makes strategic sense in a larger foreign policy for the Middle East? No. It’s an effort to preserve President Obama’s prestige.
How did America and the world get to this point of stumbling to the edge of, if not war, punitive military intervention? An intervention that is very Cold Warish because Syria is a proxy theatre for strategic sparring between a resurgent Russia and bellicose Iran. Assad allegedly crossed the red line laid down by President Obama. Obama declared use of chemical weapons would invite an American response. The Obama administration claims that Assad gassed a thousand civilians. So time to fire up the cruise missiles.
The primary source of the red line edict was neither a strategic foreign policy for the Middle East nor a principled moral conviction against the use of chemical weapons (though certainly President Obama disapproves of using them). The initial promulgation of the red line to Syria’s Assad was a tactical maneuver to protect President Obama’s prestige.
In the face of escalating civil war in Syria, Obama’s political goal was three fold. First, his foremost concern was to retain credibility–save face–between his presidential image and rhetoric and his practice. Excoriating Bush for unilateralism, benighted escapades in nation building, and war mongering were central planks in Obama’s first presidential campaign. In contrast to the Neo-Con Hawk Bush, Obama would be the American Dove, a citizen of the world, a humble leader who would work through multilateral and global institutions such as the United Nations. This image was the key reason he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, the president, whose inauguration promised to usher in planetary peace, could not very well go hawkish over Syria. Additionally, his recent foreign policy of leading from behind in Libya and next to not at all in Egypt, established a less than aggressive pattern for Obama’s intervention in the Arab Spring. Second, he needed to placate the hawks on the political Right to avoid being caste as a pusillanimous president in the lineage of Jimmy Carter. Third, he had to pander to his political base on the Left who reflexively regard nearly all American military interventions, save those supervised by Democrats under the Clinton administration, as evil.
Hmmm, what to do? Draw a red line that you think will never be crossed.
The red line accomplished Obama’s three political prestige goals. It polished his image as a president of peace; he showed restraint, a sophisticated reluctance to go to war in contrast to Bush’s reckless rush to arms. By drawing the line, he exercised firm global leadership and avoided being cast as another Carter. His critics could not call him weak and indecisive. Drawing
a line he thought would never be crossed, he assumed would remove the need to ever resort to military action, thus palliating his political base on the Left.
The salient fact that must be kept in mind in the current ballyhoo over a U.S. military retaliation to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons is: none of the three considerations that led to drawing the red line and now to retaliatory military strikes have anything to do with Syrian civilians and Assad per se. The red line and the administration’s current efforts to legitimize a punitive strike serve primarily to preserve Obama’s presidential prestige.
Now that Syria has ostensibly crossed the red line of deploying chemical weapons, Obama’s bluff has been called. If he fails to retaliate, he looks feckless. The president’s surrogates, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, claim the moral outrage of killing innocent women and children with hideous chemical weapons moved Obama to action.
Totally unconvincing. Assad’s forces have killed 100,000 Syrian civilians and rebels since the instigation of the civil war (certainly there were some innocent women and children among these dead). Now suddenly, because one thousand people have been killed, America must act. The story lacks any credibility. Killing tens of thousands of people with AK-47’s, machine guns, grenades, mortars, artillery, and conventional air force weapons does not trouble the president’s moral sensibilities. But kill a thousand people with a gas attack, that rouses his moral conscious. No, it’s unbelievable. What primarily stirs Obama is his narcissistic need to maintain his presidential prestige.