James S. Robbins is Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech on U.S. East Asia policy at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Acheson spoke about the American "defensive perimeter" on the far Pacific Rim, from the Aleutians to the Philippines. Unfortunately, he left South Korea outside of his red line.
Six months later, North Korea invaded the south and the Korean War was on. Many blamed Acheson for giving the impression that the United States would not rush to the aid of its South Korean ally, thus encouraging the North to invade. Acheson's speech became a classic in the study of diplomatic communications. Like it or not, when our leaders speak, other governments pay attention.
The controversy over the Obama administration's purported red line in Syria is unlikely to enter international relations literature, but the point is the same. Until recently, U.S. policy seemed to be plain. In August of 2012, President Obama said, "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." In December 2012 he ramped up his rhetoric, saying he wanted to "make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command – the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable." In March, Obama reiterated his threat, and said using chemical weapons would be a "game changer."
The administration was apparently satisfied that this tough talk had deterred Assad. But then the dictator crossed the red line and used chemical weapons. And nothing happened. Pressed for a response, the president announced jointly with British Prime Minister David Cameron that they would "increase the pressure" on the Assad regime. Last week the U.S. announced a new round of sanctions on the same day as reports surfaced of new chemical weapons attacks, this time in the Damascus suburbs.
Obama's failure to follow up forcefully on his threats quickly became part of a developing narrative that he has lost his momentum, that he lacks juice, that he is a prematurely lame duck. Administration officials struck back, but in ways that tended to confirm the criticisms. They said the red line comment was a slip of the tongue, that Obama had gone beyond the agreed-upon administration talking points. They said that when he mentioned the use of chemical weapons, he meant using them a lot, not just a little bit. And they said that they still are not sure how many chemical weapons were used, which of course could mean it was "a whole bunch."
These explanations are difficult to accept. The policy could not have been a slip of the tongue when it kept slipping, not only from Obama but other senior policymakers such as Vice President Joe Biden and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One anonymous administration official said that the policy was intended to not tie the president down to a specific course of action.
But the whole point of having policies is to do just that. Policies are not an open-ended philosophical discourse or exercises in politically expedient straddling. Policies are statements of the interests, intentions and promised actions of the United States in particular circumstances. If a policy states that maybe America will do one thing, maybe it will do another, or maybe it will do nothing at all, then it communicates uncertainty and drift. It would best be left unsaid.
The president's advisors serve him and the country ill by taking the focus away from the central question: what is United States policy and how will it be enforced? Obama's studied ambiguity is misplaced in foreign affairs, and the credibility gap between the administration's words and actions is widening. This has profound effects, not only on the Assad regime's estimate of what it can get away with, but on global perceptions of U.S. power and influence. Rogue states like Iran and North Korea may assume that they can also cross red lines without consequence. Friendly countries may conclude that they cannot rely on the United States and go it alone. Israel has apparently reached that conclusion already.
None of this bodes well for international peace and stability. The White House needs to stop explaining what the president might have meant and simply set a policy. One administration official was quoted saying, "if [Assad] drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?" If nothing else, this callous statement has the benefit of clarity. If Obama agrees that a dictator gassing civilians is not a cause for intervention, he should just say so. And stick to it.