Red lines, green lights and mixed messages


The past week has been witness to a dizzying array of political brinksmanship, even in a town like Washington, D.C., where changing strategy can be as commonplace as changing shoes.

More than a year ago, President Obama declared that if Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons to attack his own people, he would be crossing a red line, and the United States would be required to take action. Last Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry gave an eloquent, impassioned and persuasive speech that outlined the case for an American response to the horrific atrocities carried out by the Assad regime against innocent civilians, including many young children. American destroyers carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles were placed within striking distance of Syrian targets. Israelis lined up for gas masks, in anticipation of potential retaliation by either Syria or Iran. An American response to Assad’s actions seemed imminent.

Then on Saturday, in a Rose Garden appearance that even surprised many in his own administration, President Obama pulled back from authorizing the anticipated attack. Instead, after confirming that, as the nation’s commander in chief, he had the authority to make the decision on his own, the president announced that he would let Congress decide whether an attack on Syria should be pursued. But notwithstanding the urgency of the situation, the president did not call on Congress to come back early from its summer recess. As a result, Congress will not take up this issue until the week of Sept. 9, at the earliest.

The mood in this country is clearly against becoming embroiled in another conflict in the Middle East.  And there is real concern that any potential move to punish Assad for his actions is complicated by the need to send a clear message without igniting a further conflagration that could spill over into other countries in the region, including Israel.

The current U.S. quandary with respect to Syria is plagued by bad judgments and worse choices. The U.S. and its allies clearly misjudged Assad’s staying power, and the level of support he has received from his benefactors in Iran (through their proxies in Hezbollah) and from Russia and China. The president’s declaration of a red line policy that he is not willing to execute is puzzling. And it isn’t at all clear that the alternative to Mr. Assad’s regime will be any better or more reliable. For example, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra rebel group would hardly bring peace and stability to the region.

Are all of these issues now going to be the subject of congressional debate before any responsive action decision is made? If so, what is the message that the Obama administration is sending to our allies — and to our enemies?

President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was guided by a simple principle: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” By becoming entrapped in his own rhetoric and then publicly backing down from a declared plan of action, President Obama may have done precisely the opposite.

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