If a foolish consistency is a hobgoblin of little minds, Obama must be very broad minded indeed, because his policies on Libya and Syria have been wildly inconsistent: the “responsibility to protect” logic that underpinned the Libyan intervention (as equivocal as it was) would certainly justify intervention in Syria. But Obama has avoided even the suggestion of intervention in Syria like the plague.
Until now. He has drawn a red line, but in so doing, he sows confusion rather than producing clarity:
Seeking re-election in November, Obama noted that he had refrained “at this point” from ordering U.S. military engagement in Syria. But when he was asked at a White House news conference whether he might deploy forces, for example to secure Syrian chemical and biological weapons, he said his view could change.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus.”
“A whole bunch of chemical weapons”? “A whole bunch”? Really? WTF constitutes “a whole bunch”? Is he saying to Assad that he can move around and use a few chemical weapons, as long as he doesn’t cross the “whole bunch” line? Wherever that is.
Excuse me while I go pound my head on the floor.
OK. Back now.
Look. There is a principle often invoked in foreign policy, and politics generally, of “constructive ambiguity.” But this is completely unconstructive ambiguity, that creates the potential for a miscalculation. Obama gives the impression that Assad can become a little bit pregnant in the use of WMD. Think a dictator with his back to the wall just might see how pregnant he can become?
No, this is not Machiavellian ambiguity on Obama’s part. It is an attempt to look all butch and tough while giving himself some maneuvering room down the road if Assad or whoever gets their hands on chem and bio weapons uses them in the coming weeks or months. Obama can rationalize not responding by invoking the “whole bunch” clause.
And note the unspoken corollary to Obama’s red line: Anything short of the use of chemical or biological weapons will NOT lead Obama to change his calculus. At least that is very likely to be the corollary that Assad (and his BFFs, the Russians) draws from Obama drawing the red line at WMD.
Again, this may not be Obama’s intention. And even if it is, it may not be a credible commitment, because outrage at Syrian government conduct may dragoon Obama into acting, against his will, as he did in Libya.
But by saying what would lead to intervention, Obama is implicitly telling Assad (and the Russians) what may very well not. And with his back against the wall, that’s something Assad may decide to take a gamble on.
Mr. Vote Present has always wanted to maximize his political flexibility. When it comes to military and strategic matters in particular, he has avoided making hard decisions, and avoided commitments intended to achieve decisive results. In a situation like that in Syria, this way of (not) leading is fraught with potential for disaster. Better to be thought a crazy MF who will order the extirpation of every Syrian military asset and every Syrian leader if Assad even looks cross-eyed at his unconventional weapons arsenal, than to be sending obscure messages that require interpretation of what constitutes “a whole bunch” or that suggest that pretty much everything else, no matter how brutal, will not lead President Math (or would that be, per pahoben’s comment, President Math Challenged?) to change his calculus.
When I hear “bunch” bananas come to mind. That’s doubly true when Obama utters the word, because when it comes to anything military or strategic or geopolitical, his policies are bananas.