What’s the Political Value of the Red Line?
By Taylor Marvin
After recent reports that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, last week I speculated about what motives would prompt Assad to violate the Obama administration’s red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, whether purposefully or inadvertently. At the time the Obama administration’s red line was widely criticized, from both directions. If Assad decided to use chemical weapons despite American threats the red line could force the US into a Syrian intervention it had no desire to fight and little ability to decisively resolve. Conversely, if the Assad regime used chemical weapons and Obama didn’t intervene, his inaction would damage American credibility and demonstrate to future human rights-violators that US threats could be safely ignored.
Worse, by declaring that the US would punish chemical weapons use the Obama administration broke the cardinal rule of deterrence by issuing a threat that was neither clear nor credible. On what scale would chemical weapons have to be used to cross the red line? Obviously, the US would not commit itself to a major war if the Assad regime used chemical weapons in small amounts, especially as the deaths of 70,000 Syrians hadn’t already prompted an intervention to stop the killing. By declaring a fuzzy red line — Obama’s statement that Assad would have to use “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons to trigger intervention appears designed to avoid rhetorically committing the US to punishing minor chemical weapons use — the US left ample room for confusion and uncertainty, lessening the deterrence value of the threat. Similarly, the Obama administration’s reluctance to fight in Syria is obvious. Since Assad knows that Obama has little ability to force his future self to intervene if the red line is crossed, the threat is less effective.
However, new reports have surfaced suggesting that Syria’s rebels, not regime forces, had released small amounts of chemical weapons (Syria’s rebels of course dispute the claim). While this confusion has made discussions of the anti-chemical weapon red line less urgent, criticism of the policy remains. Critics argue that tying US entry into the war to chemical weapons use gives the rebels an incentive to mislead the US, for example, and small-scale chemical weapons use can be very difficult to verify, giving Assad room to employ them but avoid punishment. But if the regime has not employed chemical weapons, does that mean the red line is an effective deterrent? Or does it remain an less-than-credible threat unlikely to successfully coerce Assad if he actually does decide to use chemical weapons?
On Twitter, Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell asked an interesting question:
Is there a contrarian argument in favor of Obama’s Syria red line?
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) May 7, 2013
You can make the admittedly contrarian case that Obama’s red line is a tool to decrease domestic demand for intervention in Syria (though recent reporting, noted by Erica Chenoweth, that the red line was an off the cuff improvisation makes divining its political motivations difficult). The Obama administration has no desire to intervene in Syria, whether by arming the opposition, destroying Syrian air defense systems in order to enforce a no-fly zone, or launching an air campaign targeting Assad’s forces. While domestic demand for US involvement in Syria is low, it’s possible that as the casualties grow American public opinion could slowly shift toward favoring an intervention to stop the killing. While the administration would, of course, make the final call on any intervention, public opinion could pressure Obama into an intervention policy he seeks to avoid.
Again, history suggests that presidents are rarely punished for inaction while atrocities continue. But there is a real possibility that elite opinion could coalesce around a perceivably-inexpensive intervention plan centered around airpower, rather than a boots-on-the-ground invasion (which no one is seriously discussing).
Setting the red line around chemical weapons use, instead of an arbitrary number of Syrian dead, is a potential way for the administration to avoid these domestic political pressures. There is considerable reason to suspect that the Assad regime will continue to avoid high-profile chemical weapons employment, in spite of its brutality. Chemical weapons are imprecise, difficult to use effectively, and would inflict massive civilian casualties if used to target rebel fighters in the urban battlefields that characterize Syria’s civil war. Even before accounting for the risk that chemical weapons use could draw down international intervention, it’s reasonable to suspect that Assad is unlikely to engage in full-scale chemical warfare.
By setting a red line prohibiting crimes Assad is unlikely to engage in anyway the Obama administration can present itself as invested in the outcome of the Syrian war and ready to intervene, while hopefully avoiding being actually forced to do so. Daniel Byman hinted at this logic in a recent New York Times op-ed, noting that red lines can potentially “placate domestic critics” of non-intervention. Of course, dedicated advocate of intervening in Syria will find this watchful distance intolerable; Shadi Hamid’s complaint in The Atlantic that “in saying that chemical weapons are a red line, the Obama administration is also saying that the killing of 70,000 Syrians is not a red line” is certainly true. But the chemical weapons red line dismisses a core argument in favor of intervention by replacing an ambiguous trigger for intervention — Assad’s brutality — with a more concrete, if still fuzzy, one Assad is less likely to cross. If Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons and the US continues to stand by the Obama administration isn’t “doing nothing”; instead, it is simply abiding by its stated red line. While not enough for many proponents of intervention, it does reduce their ability to drum up political support for US entry into the conflict.
It’s entirely possible that Assad will judge Obama’s threats not credible and use chemical weapons anyway — and potentially force the US into war — but again, it’s similarly possible that political pressure could eventually force Obama to intervene in the absence of a broken chemical weapons red line. As Assad is much more likely to kill large numbers of Syrians through conventional means than chemical warfare, the red line is conceivably a device intended to separate Obama from a hard choice.