On August 20, 2012, President Barack Obama made chemical weapons use the trigger for U.S. intervention in Syria. "A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," he declared, adding, "That would change my calculus." With Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's announcement that Syrian government forces used chemical munitions against Syrian rebels, many Republicans are castigating Obama for his apparent inaction.
Make no mistake: Obama's voiding of his earlier red line hemorrhages U.S. credibility and leads not only Damascus, but also Tehran and Pyongyang to conclude that America is little more than a paper tiger. Obama does harm, but he is not the only president to diminish U.S. standing with a gap between rhetoric and policy reality. George W. Bush, for example, spoke loftily of democracy and reform during his first term, but left liberals and dissidents out to dry in his second term. Nor, despite his rhetoric, was Bush's approach to Iran markedly different from that of his successor.
Republicans are right to want to restore American credibility, but shaming Obama into military action is unwise. There is a conceit in Washington that debates need never end, but ground truth shifts with time. True, Obama might have helped moderates and prevented tens of thousands of deaths had he authorized a no-fly zone and decapitating airstrikes a year and a half ago, but to ignore radicalization of the Syrian opposition in the intervening months is foolish. Groups whom American diplomats meet have little influence on the ground, where al-Qaida-affiliated radicals increasingly hold sway.
Nor is securing chemical weapons depots any longer an option: In Libya in 2003, that job took more than ten days, and that was with the government's cooperation. Leafleting to urge evacuation followed by bombing chemical weapons depots might keep the munitions away from both sides.
The real American error predates the Syrian uprising. Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-Senator John Kerry, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi each bolstered Assad with visits to Damascus. Neither their pleas nor incentives changed Assad. Like the North Koreans and Libyans, the Syrian leadership saw its American interlocutors as useful idiots, providing time and cover to augment arsenals.
Diplomacy misapplied is costly. The real opportunity to prevent murderous regimes from utilizing weapons of mass destruction occurs prior to their acquisition. Diplomacy should be tried, but only in a short and finite window.