The Obama administration is ignoring two of the most elementary rules of the use of power: First of all, the more credible threats are, the less power one needs to marshal (and hence less one needs to spend on building it up), and the less often power needs to be actually exercised. Second, every time one makes a threat, one is tested twice: will it bring about the desired outcome? And will it build up or diminish the credibility of one’s power?
In March, President Obama announced that if the Assad regime will use chemical weapons this would be a “game changer.” When reports first surfaced that such weapons were used, the Obama administration pointed out that these appeared to be riot control agents, such as pepper spray and tear gas, which is often used by police forces. These may be considered chemical weapons in the Middle East, but the United States does not consider them as such. (It was also unclear whether it was the rebels or the government who had employed these agents.)
Most recently, however, when Britain, France, and Israel reported that nerve gas agents were used by the Assad regime, the Obama administration responded that the United States was investigating the matter. As these reports come in, the study continues.
One can readily understand the reluctance of the Obama administration to act, given the large quantities, varying kinds, and wide dispersion of the chemical agents in Syria. Moreover, the chemical weapons are not easily handled; safely destroying them will very likely entangle the United States in the civil war; and such involvement would almost certainly lack UN authorization. However, all this was known before the United States drew the red line. Hence, if the Obama administration continues to dillydally, it will further undermine the credibility of the United States as a superpower, a position already shaken by its failing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The same holds for the shifting red lines—the plural “lines” is not a misprint—drawn, redrawn and repositioned on Iran’s nuclear development. From the beginning of his first term, President Obama indicated that the United States would find it “unacceptable” if Iran were to pursue a nuclear weapon program. Yet it seems that Iran’s nuclear development did not stop. In September 2009 the administration threw its support behind a proposal that would allow Iran to pursue uranium enrichment up to 5 percent. The deal was rejected, and by February 2010, Iran was producing 20 percent enriched uranium. The administration decided that 20 percent was now acceptable—as long as Iran did not move toward constructing a bomb. The president pledged “not to contain, but to prevent an Iranian bomb,” even if that meant military action.
The administration then shifted its red line from weapons capability to actual weaponization. In December of 2011, The New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “strongly suggested that the United States was determined to stop not only a weapon, but the ability to produce one.” But a month later, Panetta told CBS’s Face the Nation that “ our red line to Iran is: do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.” When then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the house that U.S. policy was to prevent “nuclear weapons capability,” the White House said that “she misspoke.”
In September of 2012, Obama insisted that declaring a red line in regard to Iran’s nuclear program as Netanyahu called for was not necessary, and would only acknowledge the nuclear bomb itself as the guaranteed point of action.
The repeated blurring of red lines is not merely troubling our allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, but also those in the Far East. They cannot but wonder if the United States will go to war with North Korea if it were to attack, say, South Korea or Japan.
Speeches that draw red lines without first considering what action we shall take if they are ignored are damaging to core U.S. interests. They make others more inclined to test our resolve and thus lead to confrontations that could be easily avoided if we did drew red lines only when we meant to hold on to them. Syria is the place we shall next see either the United States standing up for the commitments it made, or a considerable erosion of its credibility.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World .