The Red Line to Damascus

Obama paints himself into a Syrian quagmire.


"What we're seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking," President Obama said during a debate with Mitt Romney last October, "and that's why we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition." You can't say he didn't warn us—not only about escalating U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war but also about the lack of a credible argument for it based on anything resembling national defense.

Judging from the explanation that Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes gave last week for Obama's decision to start arming the Syrian rebels, the president painted himself into a corner with his own red line. "The president has been clear that the use of chemical weapons…is a red line for the United States," Rhodes told reporters, "as there has long been an established norm within the international community against the use of chemical weapons."

As he did in the case of Libya, Obama cites international authority to justify joining a war against a Middle Eastern despot. The "international community" drew a line, so he did too, leaving him no choice but to intervene more forcefully once U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that, as Rhodes put it, "the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year."

In the context of a war that has killed some 93,000 people so far, it is not clear why the 150 or so casualties the White House attributes to chemical weapons should make a decisive difference, except that the president threatened "enormous consequences" in response to any use of such weapons. "If Mr. Obama did not respond in some fashion," The New York Times explained, "it would have been taken as a question of credibility since he had previously said such a development would change his calculus."

This perceived need to preserve credibility is a key ingredient in any foreign policy quagmire, since it discourages second thoughts and dictates stubborn persistence in the face of failure. No matter how misguided in theory or disastrous in practice an intervention is, changing course is always a threat to credibility, a threat that looms larger the farther a president goes down the wrong path. All the more reason to resist what Obama used to call "a war of choice."

The case for caution is reinforced by the fact that, odious as the current government of Syria is, there is no guarantee that whatever follows it will be better, especially since the strongest element of the opposition forces is militantly anti-American. No matter what the Obama administration says about making sure that U.S. weapons go to the right rebels, it is effectively siding with Sunni extremists against Shiite extremists in a sectarian war.

Polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea that the U.S. has a responsibility to help rebels allied with Al Qaeda defeat a dictator allied with Hezbollah. But instead of heeding that message, Obama seems to be taking advice from Bill Clinton.

"When [voters] tell you not to do these things," the former president opined the day before the White House announced its plans to arm the Syrian opposition, "they're not telling you not to do these things." After all, Clinton said, "They hire you to win…to look around the corner and see down the road." He urged Obama not to "look like a total wuss" by staying out of a civil war 6,000 miles away.

History suggests that Clinton overestimates the ability of mere mortals to "see down the road." The very intervention he cited as a model of smart foreign policy—arming Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s—had the unforeseen consequence of strengthening America's future enemies.

But the architect of a stable and peaceful Somalia is unfazed, warning that "we shouldn't over-learn the lessons of the past." That does not seem to be the danger we are facing right now.

NEXT: Brickbat: Leave the Driving to Us

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  1. Sullum Speaks!

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  2. Mr. Obama is guilty of being a dreamer. He dreams of a world without Assad, where Sunni and Shiite live together in peace without official oppression, where the use of chemical weapons is thought twice, and where news media talk about things other than IRS, NSA, ATF or State Department scandals.

    1. Obama’s speech will also mark the first time a U.S. president will speak from the east side of the former Wall, a symbolic crossing into territory formerly under Soviet control.

      “Mr Putin, rebuild this wall!”

      1. …and look slippy about it.

  3. Give both sides guns and deploy a swarm of HD cameras. It’s time for some proper reality TV

    1. With rebel leader eating people’s hearts? Better put it on a pay channel so we don’t wake the soccer moms!

  4. OT: New Yorker misses point completely. NSA spying isn’t a problem with government, but those big evul korporashuns. Recommends bigger government to make corporations smaller and make spying less likely?

    I give a 10 for the mental gymnastics on this one.…..asier.html


      Botched the link.

    2. Duh! The whole problem with government is that it is controlled by the corporations! Government needs more power so it can control the corporations that control it! Only when the government controls the corporations will power be in the hands of the people! Dyslexics of the world… untie!

    3. I heard an interview the other day with a journalist who wrote a book about the violence in the Mexican drug cartels. The guy tried to blame the drugs problem on capitalism and hyperconsumerism, and not the “War on Drugs”.

      1. Oh yes, why, just the other day a crew of gangbangers from Dell did a drive-by on a Mac store.

    4. I’m too lazy to look it up but I posted it a while back, someone at the Atlantic argued that the problem was too many government contracts to tuh evul private sector. Bring it all back in house ’cause government workers are the shizzle.

  5. Sounds like a solid plan to me dude. Wow.

  6. Save those arms for our own rebels.

    1. You don’t arm your own rebel scum. What a minute, unless you are trying to draw them out. Who do you work for Galt !!?!??

  7. But the architect of a stable and peaceful Somalia is unfazed


  8. “What we’re seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking,… and that’s why we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition.”


  9. How ’bout some background checks? Time to close the foreign aid loophole.

    1. How ’bout some background checks? Time to close the foreign aid loophole.

      Sorry. That would require a competent State Department and intelligence community.

      Not happening any time soon.

  10. Oh yeah, it’s so fuckin’ “heartbreaking” to see radical Islamic terrorists getting killed trying to take over yet another country. NOT.

    1. It is tragic because innocent children are getting killed that have nothing to do with this. Does that mean we should send Americans to die? Absolutely not.

      1. I?m just as anti-intervention as the next guy at H&R, but when it comes to the Middle East, much of the H&R commentariate lacks nuance. (ie, are idiots)

        There can’t possibly be single rebel with a secular bone in his body that might be against brutal dictatorship.

        They’re all Al Quaeda terrorist, every last one of them.

        1. much of the H&R commentariate lacks nuance.


          They’re all Al Quaeda terrorist, every last one of them.


          1. I should have put that in quotes.

            1. Well your strawman description of the commentariate also lacks nuance.

              1. Which is why I said “much” of the commentariate. (See Mike M)

                1. You may want to read the latest Hit n Run posting buddy.

                  1. I didn’t mean to be critical of anyone’s position. I just think it is easy to dehumanized people on the other side of the world. There are millions of Syrians and they are not all one hive mind. They are individuals with their own unique circumstances in life.

                    1. “There are millions of Syrians and they are not all one hive mind. They are individuals with their own unique circumstances in life.”


                  2. Well, “buddy”, the article proves my point. The FSA isn’t simply made up Islamic Terrorists. But don’t let the nuance get in the way of your black and white narrative, right?

  11. How many Middle East wars is our Nobel Peace Laureate now up to? Easy to lose count.

  12. The Clinton’s (and probably Gore) are cheesed off at Obama for waffling on endorsing Hillary in 2016. Consequently Bill has been rather open mouthed in his criticism of the Obama administration of late. It wouldn’t surprise me if ‘ol Slick Willie baited Obama into an unpopular action on Syria with his “fool” comment. Not a good idea to make enemies out of the Clinton’s. I suspect more entertainment at Obama’s expense will be forthcoming.

  13. This “red line” meme could be pretty useful.

    “Those who highjack a great religion have crossed a red line.”

    “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety have crossed a red line.”


  14. Contrary to how we were always told, Carter and Brzezinski were arming the mujahideen in the summer of 1979, for the express purpose of provoking the Soviet invasion. Brzezinski even told those people, “we believe God is on your side.” The Soviets saw themselves as responding to narco-terrorism and cross-border incursions; it may not have been smart to obligate themselves by treaty to defending the Afghan government at the time, but that was their rationale. Detente had been working up until then.

  15. “He [Clinton] urged Obama not to ‘look like a total wuss’ by staying out of a civil war 6,000 miles away.”

    If that was actually the way Clinton phrased it, I find that hilarious. It sounds like two middle school boys talking, with one urging the other to get up enough courage to ask a girl to the dance.

    God help us if major foreign policy directions are being made simply to avoid looking like a wuss to one’s peers. Or was old Bill just kidding around, not realizing what he said would be taken seriously?

    1. No Bill Clinton, like pretty much everybody who has interacted with Obama, recognizes that Obama is an insecure narcissist, and knows just how to play him.

    2. Clinton’s Balkans policy was hardly a paragon of geostrategic virtue.

  16. …150 or so casualties the White House attributes to chemical weapons…

    150 out of 93,000. Yeah, that’s a real effective WMD there. Can we stop calling them that now? Sure, being gassed to death is certainly not a pleasant way to die, but neither is getting shot, blown up, or any other way people commonly die while fighting a war. The truth is chemical weapons aren’t that effective, and don’t actually lead to death and destruction on any kind of massive scale.

    1. Loki,
      You are messing with the narrative. Between drones and the NSA, you should be watching the skies. Heads up buddy.

  17. A proper US strategic approach to Middle Eastern conflicts is “Let’s you and him fight.”

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  19. So, let me get this straight: American soldiers must die and the US must draw the ire of the international community in order for the US president to save face? Heck, misguided and untruthful as Bush was, even his motivations were better than that.

    1. Segue to MSNBC saying this was all Bush’s fault. A Nobel Peace Prize winner could never inflate a war!


  20. Mr. Sullum’s points are well taken. We need to stand on more than pride in a situation about which we are fairly ignorant. It is clear to me that we, who grew up within western civilization, have no understanding of the Islamic civilization; what motivates them or their world view. After reading Price-Jones book Closed Circle, I am convinced that our ignorance of that civilization will be our undoing. Standing on the pride of some arbitrary ‘red-line’ of pride is a bizarre as using the military to ‘win’ the hearts and minds of people. I have no idea whether or not chemical or nerve agents were used in Syria. I do know that they cannot have been of the caliber the U.S. has in their stockpile or the bloated bodies of thousands would have been apparent.…..r-rubicon/

  21. Being somewhat of a cynic, I though Obama did this to get the news and voters thinking about something other than the too numerous to remember scandals. And I see little to no news of it in the media. Perhaps the liberal press, because it conflict with the vision they still have of him in his head, can’t believe it, so don’t report it? Or is it they’ve given up on him and instead are investigating his scandals?

    Such is the pain of cognitive dissonance in liberal minds when hit in the head with the reality of Obama.

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