Obama can see all that and yet he can, just as clearly, see the case for action. For him, it rests on two pillars. First, and underestimated, he is serious about non-proliferation. His stated goal remains “a world without nuclear weapons”; he is more hawkish about Iranian nukes, for his own reasons, than many realize. In that context, he cannot close his eyes to the violation of what has been the world’s most enduring prohibition on weapons of mass destruction, the convention against chemical weapons. If al-Assad’s use of gas at Ghouta is proven and goes unpunished, that 90-year-old convention will be a dead letter. Chemical weapons will become just another tool in the arsenal. Yet the significance would be wider. As the president put it on Sept. 3, not to act would indicate “that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don’t mean much.”
Second, there is the matter of his own credibility. Having said a year ago that al-Assad’s use of such arms will cross a “red line,” he cannot remain inert. If he does, he will be conceding the next three years of his presidency, unable to exert any leverage because friends and enemies alike will not believe a word he says. This is not a macho matter of saving face. If he is to succeed in those areas where many would want him to succeed — say on Israel-Palestine peace talks — he needs to be heeded.
Obama knows this and remains understandably torn. The bitter paradox for this reluctant interventionist is that his very reluctance has, in part, forced him to intervene. The context of Obama’s “red line” remark a year ago was, in fact, an explanation of why he would not get involved in Syria, despite the mounting slaughter. Only if chemical weapons were used would he step in. History may judge that red line speech as a green light to al-Assad, a signal that he could kill and kill, so long as he used “conventional” means. Yet the effect of that one sentence was to box Obama in: Once the red line was crossed, he had to act.
Historians might further judge that none of this would have happened had Obama, and the world, stepped in right at the start. The time for sending messages was when al-Assad’s career as a mass killer was just beginning, when he was killing unarmed protesters in their dozens. Perhaps if the world had acted then, al-Assad would never have got to the point where he could kill more than 100,000 and turn 2 million into cross-border refugees.
Even the delay from last week to this may have consequences, with Obama under pressure from Senate hawks such as John McCain — whose votes he now needs — to do more than fire a punitive warning shot in al-Assad’s direction. They want sufficient US force to “degrade” the Syrian dictator’s ability to conduct more mass slaughter.