Sorry, Mr. President, Your Credibility Is on the (Red) Line

The president created this crisis, here's how he can fix it.

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Syrian President Bashar Assad, and former Chief of Staff Ali Habib, at Ash-Shaeb Presidential palace in Damascus in 2007.

Sorry Mr. President, it is about your credibility now. Despite President Obama’s plaintive cry on Wednesday – "My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line. And America's and Congress's credibility is on the line." – the U.S. response to Bashar Assad’s deplorable use of chemical weapons against his own people is very much a matter of Obama’s own credibility as a leader and with it America’s national credibility.

As disjointed debate unfolds, at last, over whether and how to respond to Assad, we seem to have lost sight of how we got here. We abdicated leadership. We were not credible when we needed to be because we made a threat without substance and without demonstrating that we took it seriously enough to forge a coalition before it was needed. We helped engender the crisis by not doing so. Now the U.S. is playing catch up when it should have been and could have been out in front. This is an American failure internationally and foreign and security policymaking rests with the executive branch, not Congress. Still, we may find that a sober look at the causes of our self-inflicted dilemma inform our choices of action – none happy, as President Obama has observed.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

At a very simple level, Assad’s attack reflects a failure of deterrence. A tenet of U.S. policy, and of collaborative international security efforts, has been preventing the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction or at least preventing or punishing their use. Obviously, in Assad’s calculations, the value of using chemical weapons outweighed what he perceived as the price – his own price – for doing so, a price supposedly to be exacted by the international community. We can’t be sure why he saw the need to use such weapons – he had other options – we know only that he decided he could and should. In that unfortunate choice rests both international and American failures. The essence of deterrence is the perception that a response is likely and that it will be so painful as to stay the hand of a would-be transgressor. We never laid the groundwork to influence that calculation. In fact, our poor credibility in the Middle East and beyond may well have exacerbated the situation, putting a finger on the scale in ways we did not imagine.

It should not have come to this. The moment President Obama drew a red line last year was the time to begin preparing for the “what if” and for making our determination clear. It was the time to begin exerting U.S. leadership in crafting a response. Yet it was never quite clear exactly we would do. While it is useful to leave the enemy guessing at the means of his punishment, it is less so not to have thought it through yourself. The administration rightly, if belatedly attempted to lay the groundwork for a multilateral approach. But a reliable and timely multilateralism requires longtime cultivation and consultation. This is what allies and partners are supposed to do, and what they expect of leadership – American leadership. We botched building a coalition through poor diplomatic preparation including at the United Nations, and we now see the price of neglecting allies and partners – or even snubbing them.

[Check out editorial cartoons about President Obama.]

The current handwringing and blame slinging inside and out of government is a chilling and disappointing reminder how little really had been decided prior to the crisis. And it’s not as if we had not recognized the possibility of such a catastrophe. This we saw coming; this was no black swan. If we were not taking our own warning seriously, or our leadership role in responding, why would Assad?

But this leaves us with “What now?” however we got to this point. As I see it, we have two objectives. The first is an ample, measured and wise response to the specific problem, Assad’s use of chemical weapons. We must act not only for what he did but also to set an example for others. Second, we should seek to begin to repair the damage done to U.S. credibility among friend and foe alike, with best efforts to re-establish U.S. leadership in a collective response, no matter how provisional. The fact that we avoided doing so for so long makes this a difficult challenge.

[See political cartoons about the Middle East.]

So what is to be done? Obama has rightly pressed that our response must be limited – meaning not an all-out intervention with boots on the ground. Strikes, not troops, are appropriate. What we are after is punishment and exacting a price, not embroiling ourselves in the Syrian civil war directly (though we can and should debate what outcome we want to see and how we help influence it). But Assad must receive the punishment and pay the price, not Syria. We should not inflict damage that he can absorb politically and militarily nor damage that would inflame passions against the U.S. elsewhere. Limiting the targets to assets that prop up Assad or serve him, which may not include military ones, can help prevent spreading the conflict. Such limited means and selective – and effective – goals will bolster our chances to building international support at least tacitly, and separate Assad from the greater Syrian strife. Make it focused. Make it personal.

Elizabeth McCall is a national security and foreign policy consultant and writer specializing in strategic planning. She served in Policy Planning at the Department of Defense and is now the president of Delphium, LLC, in Alexandria, Va.

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