Ever since Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in the early 20th century, America’s foreign policy has been framed by universal moral maxims. From Wilson to Reagan, FDR to George W. Bush, a uniquely American approach to foreign policy has been pursued in sharp contrast to Europe, where national interest reigned for centuries. American national interests guide policy, but policies are always sold as achieving universal principled ends.
President Obama’s now infamous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Syria represents a break from this tradition. The act of using chemical weapons has itself become a justification for American intervention, when no real American interests justify intervening in Syria. Universal declarations against chemical weapons use are present, but American interests are not.
Oddly, Obama has equated the very use of chemical weapons as a threat to America’s national interest. In August, after the chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb, Obama told CNN, “when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has.” (Emphasis mine.)
But what national interest would be satisfied by engaging in a conflict with Syria? If the goal is to deter chemical weapons use as the administration suggests, then I would argue no American national interest is present at all. If ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the goal, this may serve to bolster Syrian rebels tied to al Qaeda, destabilizing the situation further. There seems to be little American interest in becoming “al Qaeda’s air force,” as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) quipped, much to the White House’s chagrin.
In the same CNN interview, Obama described the American interests at stake as “making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating” as well as “needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.” Neither of these interests would necessarily be protected by intervening, and intervention could end up being a step backwards.
Calls for a bombing campaign in Syria also reek of inconsistency. According to a statement released by the White House, the administration found “with high confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year…primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory.”
If this was the case, then why did Obama not call for strikes in Syria when the administration suspected chemical weapons use earlier this year? Until devastating images of Syrian civilians suffering from a chemical weapons attack appeared on television screens worldwide, the United States refused to get involved.
All this comes in the face of widespread opposition among the American people to intervention, likely congressional defeat of an administration-backed resolution to use force. And an embarrassing slip of the tongue by Secretary of State John Kerry giving Assad one week to give up his chemical weapons arsenal. In a primetime address to the nation Tuesday night, President Obama called for a delay in his proposed congressional vote to authorize strikes on targets in Syria. Instead, the administration will work through international institutions, as should have been pressed earlier instead of just seeking authorization for a strike that was not in America’s interest.
Over 100,000 people have died in the Syrian Civil War thus far, many civilians killed by Syrian government forces. While the situation is devastating, there are some instances where United States intervention could exacerbate the conflict, in particular if the aims of the intervention are unclear and the reason for the intervention is not backed by American interests. The side we are choosing to support must also be made clear, which has not happened yet in regards to Syria.
The administration brought America into this situation by conflating American interest with chemical weapons use in the first place. When Obama called using chemical weapons a “red line” for Syria back in 2012, many would argue, the recent back and forth over a possible strike may have been inevitable if chemical weapons were used. Red lines are never arbitrary.
And that is why drawing red lines should be done much more carefully, not by an off-the-cuff comment by the president at one press briefing. Once a line is drawn by a high ranking government official, in particular when it’s the president, the nation inserts itself into a conflict without even knowing if the line will be crossed. We end up in a situation where the United States may have been forced to act for the sake of “credibility,” as Swarthmore Political Science Professor Dominic Tierney insinuated on MSNBC earlier this month. A “war of credibility” is a war we have no reason to be involved in.