Red lines, deadlines, and a dearth of options

Red lines, deadlines, and a dearth of options

One of the classic rules in child-rearing is to avoid making idle threats.

Unless Washington develops a response consistent with its previously pronounced threats, that will be the fate of the Obama administration’s national security policy.

The White House acknowledged rather reluctantly — after France, Britain, and Israel had already done so — that indeed Syria had crossed a “red line” in its use of chemical weapons in the two-year-old Syrian civil war; now what will they do about it?

The president’s hesitation and ambivalence over what to do about Syria is legitimate. The United States has few genuine options given the apparent dominance of Islamist Sunni forces among the Syrian opposition. Bomb weapons sites? Send in the ground forces needed to secure those sites? Supplying weapons to Islamist fundamentalist forces for them to capture the sites? None of these unpalatable options provides a guarantee that the chemical weapons caches will be secured.

Arab governments and their forces are not truly ready to intervene, and any action on their part will only exacerbate the internal conflicts within the Arab communities. As a result, the United States and the West have few good choices. Despite growing calls from Republicans and Democrats in Congress for action, none of their proposals is genuinely viable, especially given disclosures of a Russian-enhanced Syrian defensive capability in place.

The consequences of this crisis are twofold, and perhaps much more serious than the apparently small amount of gas used. One of the dimensions is strategic and the other is systemic. One relates to Iran and Israel, while the other to President Obama’s processes of decision making.

Clearly Obama wishes he could retract his words — although not necessarily the intent — that if Syria used weapons it would be a “game changer.” It is not that the president feels any less strongly about the matter. Rather, he recognizes that Iran, having seen the United States blink when it came to its threats against Syria, might well conclude that America’s threats concerning its own nuclear ambitions were idle. Obama offered some of the toughest talk of his administration concerning Syria and Iran, with the possible exception of his positions on Afghanistan and Al Qaida. No doubt the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community would rather not have these artificial red lines and deadlines shaping their responses.

The sarin revelations come at an inopportune time for the president. He has not demonstrated consistent, forceful leadership after his reelection victory. On the domestic side, he remains indecisive. This has affected his battles with Congress and even within his own party. The budget battle, sequestration, the futile cave-in on gun control, and the continuing resolution fights — even his concession on the air traffic controllers’ furlough in place of an aggressive fight with Congress on sequestration — have shown exceedingly weak presidential leadership.

For Israel, the consequences of idle threats are alarming. Israel now has reason to be concerned about how the United States will react if and when Iran approaches nuclear weapons readiness. Israel must avoid embarrassing the U.S. while ensuring its own capability to act unilaterally against Iran should that be necessary. Israel also needs to reassess the domestic consequences not only of a unilateral strike against Iran, but the traumatic effect of high casualties. If Obama’s dilemma offers no viable options, consider Netanyahu’s: learning to live with a nuclear Iran, or facing a potential military engagement with Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah.

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