Red lines work only when they are red. This is one of the foreign policy lessons President Obama has not learned.
The President has had to redefine what his “red line” on chemical weapons use constituted in Syria and has not explained a clear plan for America’s involvement in the conflict. Consulting with Congress before making such a statement would have been a better course of action. America is now faced with losing credibility if the President doesn’t follow through on his irresponsible ultimatum.
After the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted narrowly to authorize the use of force in Syria, Obama may think the red line he wavered on in recent months is vindicated. Nevertheless, neither the President nor his top officials have indicated what they intend to accomplish by attacking Syria.
While seeking congressional approval for any involvement is a step in the right direction, many strategic and security questions remain unanswered. James Carafano, Heritage’s vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, examines a number of lessons Obama has not learned leading up to this decision.
One comes from the George W. Bush Administration: “Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.” The decision to take military action in Iraq and Afghanistan was broadly approved by Congress, the U.N., and the public. When the U.S. began to struggle in these conflicts and casualties rose, that support meant something.
The final lesson Carafano lists is “Think before you act.” Jim Phillips, Heritage senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs, argues that “military force is a blunt and bloody instrument for sending signals. Those signals may not have the desired consequences. If Assad brushes them off and continues his serial mass murders, then the Administration will look ineffective and irresolute.” If Obama directs the use of force in Syria, does he have an end goal? How will he achieve the defined objectives? Without answers to these questions, he likely cannot justify military engagement.
In discussing the use of chemical weapons in Syria on Saturday, President Obama declared, “This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security.” While few would argue that the use of chemical weapons is morally egregious, the President has not articulated what the attack directly means for U.S. security.
In yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the use of force in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry did not illustrate the specific threats to U.S. national security interests. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel did not clarify what the strategic objectives are in executing a strike. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey did not adequately answer how things had changed since his previous warnings on military force in Syria. Perhaps the President should reflect on the fact that his top defense and foreign affairs officials cannot articulate what we will be accomplishing by using military force in Syria.
In concluding his remarks, the President said, “I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.” Yet congressional authorization alone does not justify the use of force in Syria or anywhere else. U.S. military force should not be used without first understanding and articulating the benefits of such actions to U.S. security interests.