One thing that Obama has made very clear in his approach to war and peace: He abhors the prospect of uncontrolled escalation. (In this sense, he bears similarities to John F. Kennedy.) And, as he no doubt knows well, Syria isn’t Libya, where an embattled, isolated dictator was hanging on to power only with the aid of foreign mercenaries. Assad has the Syrian army fighting for him (minus a few high-ranking defectors); he has the support of several factions of the Syrian population, including Christians, who fear what might happen if the Muslim rebels—some of them radical Islamists—take power; and he receives aid, to varying degrees, from Russia, China, and Iran. Toppling Assad might mark not the end but merely a new chapter of a bourgeoning civil war.
As initial steps, Obama might respond to the line-crossing in ways that seem to restrict his commitment. He could supply the rebels with arms, or set up a no-fly zone, or bomb certain “high-value targets” of the regime, or any number of other possibilities. No doubt the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared a list of options, perhaps with boxes next to each, for the president to check “Yes” or “No.”
But any president who’s apprehensive about escalation—and any president who’s read the history of the Vietnam War, as Obama has—must be concerned that one step inexorably leads to another. What happens after the first step? What happens when the Syrians escalate in response? Who cleans up the mess after it’s over? How much will this venture, however well intentioned, cost in lives and dollars? Obama probably also knows that the senators urging him to take military action will shirk responsibility, and blame him for all the troubles, if Syria collapses or goes up in flames in the aftermath.
And yet, a red line is hard to ignore; that’s why it’s painted red. If someone crosses it after being warned not to, the one who issued the warning can’t just turn away. This is why leaders are reluctant to draw red lines; doing so forces them to take action, and sometimes it’s not so clear ahead of time whether action (or what sort of action) is warranted. But in the case of Syria using chemical weapons, the red line dilemma isn’t simply a matter of “perceptions” or upholding American “credibility.” It’s also a truly terrible step; it violates international law and every code of decency and security. If Assad is culpable (by reasonably high standards of evidence), it’s a bad idea on several counts to let him or his regime go unchallenged.
It may be that Obama is buying time—time to settle on a course of action, to coordinate it with allies in the region (Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf states are crucial), to check whether the current evidence might alter the attitude of the Russians or Chinese (isolating Assad from his allies would make any action less risky, and a U.N. resolution would be useful, too), perhaps to probe and prod internal dissension within Assad’s entourage (a coup could preempt a world of pain). Maybe spies and diplomats are exploring all these possibilities. That would be good. Obama’s aversion to escalation is fully justified. But so were his warnings against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. These two instincts—the drawing of a red line and the reluctance to punish its crossing—are on the verge of clashing. He’ll have to do something, but he shouldn’t be rushed into doing it.