President Obama's Shifting Red Line on Syria

If a red line can be cavalierly declared, and then shifted for convenience, then it is no red line at all.

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Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright Scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future , among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com .

The story out of antiquity shows a single Roman consul, Gaius Popillius Laenas, alone with his two clerks facing the might of the Seleucid Empire which was threatening the Roman protectorate of Egypt in 168 B.C. The old consul's mission was to force the king to return to Syria. The exchange between the two, as the story itself, has many variations. However, they all boil down to the following: The king, laughing at the diktat issued by the Roman asks the classic version of "you and what army" is going to force me back to Syria away from Egypt. The Roman responds by drawing a circle in the sand and saying that when he steps across the line, he had better be marching toward Syria and not Egypt. The king retreated, and the red line was born. The concept of a red line in international relations is now in-vogue to describe a situation where one nation or coalition sets up a tripwire, which if crossed, will result in dire consequence. It is being overused over the issue of Iran and is being brought up constantly regarding Syria; history comes full circle in the strangest ways.

On Aug. 20, 2012 President Obama issued a red line declaration to the Assad regime:

We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people…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.

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By Dec. 6, 2012 the red line was unilaterally shifted in favor of the Assad dictatorship by removing the injunction of moving chemical weapons, as intelligence indicated had already occurred. This is where the red line stood until reports surfaced in January of 2013 that the Syrians have already used chemical weapons (Agent 15 according to reports) against their own population in the city of Homs on Dec. 23, 2012. This is according to a Department of State cable sent to Main State Headquarters by the U.S. Consul General in Istanbul, Scott Kilner. The State Department and the White House have neither refuted nor confirmed the attack. The Department of State has now used the phrase that it "couldn't corroborate" the story.

The Syrian regime has continuously tested Western resolve and presumably believes that if the West is not going to stop them from killing 60,000 people, then why would the West react because they used chemical weapons? Was the Homs attack a test? Why has the mainstream media completely ignored the story? There is no way to know the truth of the story at this point, but it is more than noteworthy that the alleged attack occurred after the initial red line was breached. If chemical weapons were used it would mark the second time in contemporary memory that a regime has used them against their own populace. This last war crime was conducted by the other Ba'ath Party regime, that of former Saddam Hussein. Further, one can invoke Occam's Razor simply: An evil Ba'athist dictatorship, whose close ally is the twisted Iranian theocracy, notorious for its support of terrorism and for killing their own people, will use chemical weapons on their own citizens.

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The situation in Syria is incredibly important in its own right, but the implications for American grand strategy are exponentially critical. Whether or not the United States should have established a red line over the movement and use of Syrian chemical weapons is now an academic question; the issue at play yet again for the current administration in regards to foreign policy is national credibility. If a red line can be cavalierly declared, and then shifted for convenience, then it is no red line at all. It is worse to declare such and not fulfill national obligation than not to have done anything in the first place. The United States has numerous red lines, more than any other nation state around the globe. There are some that are clear and treaty expressed, such as with NATO; with the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty; and with Japan. There are other de facto red lines that are equally obligatory and far reaching, such as with Israel, Taiwan, and the global War on Terror. A nation that lacks the most basic level of international relations credibility is a nation that cannot act on the international scene successfully. It is too bad that we can't resurrect that old Roman consul who understood what must be done when dealing with any barbarian.