Do not threaten what you are not prepared to do. That is a cardinal rule of foreign policy. And it is a rule that is causing the White House diplomatic and political trouble now that it has agreed that Syria has likely used chemical weapons “on a small scale” against rebel forces.
The administration’s announcement today comes on the heels of similar claims by Britain and France last week and by Israel this week. The chemical weapon in question is believed to be sarin, which kills its victims by disrupting the ability of the nerves to communicate with the rest of the body. The Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo used sarin in a 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed twelve and injured thousands.
The administration has gone to some length to hedge its claim about what Syria has done. The letter informing congressional leaders stated that U.S. intelligence agencies had “varying degrees of confidence” about their finding. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who announced the administration’s new assessment during his trip to the Middle East, said “we need to get all the facts” before concluding for certain that the Syrians had used sarin or any other chemical weapon.
Definitive evidence that the intelligence agencies of four countries are dead wrong in their suspicions is not likely to come any time soon, if at all. So the pressure at home and abroad on President Obama to make the Assad government pay a price will grow. He has been calling on Assad to step down since August 2011, but he has declined to provide the means to make that happen.
Last August, he warned Damascus that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that “would change my calculus” about the possibility of a U.S. intervention. He upped the ante last December when he warned Assad that using chemical weapons is “totally unacceptable,” and that if they are used “there will be consequences.”
Obama has never said what precisely he would do if Syria crossed his red line. But most observers have interpreted his statements as a promise to make Damascus regret using chemical weapons. Foreign capitals and Capitol Hill will be watching to see if Obama makes good on that threat. If he doesn’t, he risks undermining his credibility and U.S. power and influence as a result. That will make it harder to deal not just with Syria but with Iran and North Korea. Tough talk and inaction seldom yield good results.
The dilemma for Obama is that his reasons for not intervening in Syria remain sound. As Iraq and Afghanistan attest, it is easier to get into war than to get out, and nation building is easier said than done. The American public is weary of foreign interventions, and Washington has no shortage of other foreign policy problems demanding its attention.
At the same time, any U.S. effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons faces a host of problems. Syria has a much larger stockpile than Libya had under Muammar Qaddafi, which is why then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last year that the difficulty in securing Syria’s chemical weapons will be “100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya.”
Attacking Syrian chemical weapons depots could push the Syrians to fire whatever weapons they can, trigger the unintended release of chemical agents, or enable jihadists to steal chemical weapons before U.S. or friendly forces can secure them. So attempting to stop one danger could create even greater ones.
In the near term, Obama will likely try to redouble efforts to persuade Moscow and others to help rein in Damascus. That will buy him additional time to weigh his options. But diplomacy alone is unlike to solve his dilemma on chemical weapons, let alone the broader Syrian crisis. And so Obama will have to make tough decisions about whether to match his words with deeds, knowing that by doing so he could unleash events he cannot control.