The reluctant admission that Syria has probably used chemical weapons on its own people puts the Obama Administration in a real bind. Its most probable response is to reinterpret the meaning of “use.”
For over a year the Administration has dithered, seemingly unaware of the enormous strategic importance that the fall of the Assad regime would have for American policy. When, against all expectations and hope, a substantial portion of the Syrian people rose up against one of the Middle East’s most brutal regimes, the President seemed hardly to notice. Rather than realize that the regime’s fall would immediately give hope to strong popular dissent in Iran and isolate Hezbollah from its main source of financial and military support, Obama seemed more concerned about the inconvenience of upsetting the status quo. While the Administration eventually decided that Assad should go, it has done almost nothing to help bring this about, its inaction sending a strong signal to both allies and adversaries about American determination.
In one area, however, the President has been bold. Several times Obama has warned Assad not to use chemical weapons, declaring that doing so would be crossing a red line. If words have any meaning, then the implication can only be that serious American action would follow. Since any actions that we would take in response to the use of chemical weapons are actions that we should be taking anyway given the strategic importance of replacing Assad, it is unclear why the President drew this line. Perhaps he naively thought Assad would never cross it. Perhaps he did not even think that far, but was merely responding to an opportunity to provide leadership on the cheap. In any case, the line has apparently been crossed.
What to do now? Given the President’s reluctance on Syria, it is hard to believe that he will suddenly see the merits of risking American life and treasure in exchange for an opportunity to fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Middle East. More likely there will be some sort of redefinition of the line. Something along the lines that a small use of chemical weapons does not justify a disproportionate response. And in a perverse way this makes sense. After all if, we allow Assad to carpet bomb his people with impunity, then why object to a little sarin?
The Administration has never had a real policy for the Middle East. Given the tremendous promise, as well as risk, posed by the political and economic turmoil that the region is undergoing, this exposes both the country and our allies to unnecessary risk. It also makes clear to everyone that America is neither a reliable ally nor one capable of recognizing and acting on its true interests.