Obama Toes the Red Line in Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a meeting with Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Amir of Qatar, unseen, in the Oval
U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a meeting with Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Amir of Qatar, unseen, in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. Obama met with the emir of Qatar as the two nations consider different approaches toward toppling Syria?s leader and share concerns about Iran?s nuclear ambition. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Syria is a test for President Obama and the New America coalition he brought to power. Can the U.S. fulfill its obligation to be "the world's indispensable nation" while at the same time avoiding the kind of military quagmire that enrages Democrats?

The Obama administration did it once before, in Libya. The U.S. had limited interests in Libya. The Obama administration proved that it could make a limited commitment, using limited resources, for a limited goal. No invasion, no nation-building. Syria, however, is more complicated and more dangerous.

There are two arguments propelling the Obama administration to intervene in Syria. One is political. President Obama has drawn a "red line" in Syria. The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have crossed it. Obama said last year, "A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

Now the White House has released a finding by the intelligence community asserting "with varying degrees of confidence" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons "on a small scale." The Syrian regime has called Obama's bluff. Now what will we do?

The president never spelled out the consequences of crossing the "red line." All he said last year was, "That would change my calculus." A White House official warned after the intelligence assessment was released, "Don't take from this that this is an automatic trigger."

The administration says the evidence is still not conclusive. "Intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient," the White House letter said. No siree, not after what happened with the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Obama administration is being super-cautious with Syria, as it should be. "It is precisely because this is a red line that we have to establish with airtight certainty that this happened," a White House official told The New York Times.

But pressure from Congress is mounting. Sen. John McCain, who never seems to have met a military intervention he didn't like, said, "I think it's pretty obvious that a red line has been crossed." Democrats are joining the call. "Something has to be done," Sen. Majority Whip Dick Durbin said. Sen. Diane Feinstein said, "Clearly Assad must go." Syria is turning into a test of U.S. credibility. If the Obama administration shows a failure of nerve with Syria, how can it be trusted to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?

The second argument for U.S. intervention is world leadership. The rule in world affairs since World War II has been that if the U.S. doesn't do anything, nothing happens. If the United States had not gone to war in 1991, Kuwait would be part of Iraq. If the U.S. had not acted in Kosovo, ethnic cleansing would never have been stopped. If the U.S. had not led the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban would still be in power. The U.S. may have "led from behind" in Libya, but U.S. enforcement of the no-fly zone was essential in ending the Qaddafi regime. It is hard to imagine a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that is not guaranteed by the United States. When the U.S. failed to act in Rwanda and Sudan, the result was genocide.

The rationale for intervention in Syria is legal and humanitarian. Legal because the use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law. Humanitarian because the Assad regime, like the Ghaddafi regime, is murdering its own citizens. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in the past two years. As in Kuwait, Kosovo and Libya, if the U.S. doesn't do something, nothing will happen. The murderous bloodletting will go on.

There are significant constraints to U.S. action in Syria. The New America came out of the bowels of the antiwar movement. Two antiwar movements in fact -- Vietnam and Iraq. One of President Obama's principal achievements in foreign policy has been disengaging U.S. troops from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has relied heavily on drones to keep U.S. troops out of harm's way. No one is talking about a major commitment of U.S. troops to Syria. Not even McCain, who said, "It does not mean boots on the ground."

Any U.S. commitment will have to be multilateral, fast and decisive. And cheap, given the constraints on the U.S. budget. The White House is already talking about using "war savings" from our disengagements in Iraq and Afghanistan to replace the budget sequesters that went into effect in March.

The problem is that Syria is far more dangerous than Libya. Many countries have a stake in the Syrian outcome: Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, plus the Assad regime's two principal supporters, Iran and Russia. The Syrian conflict has a sectarian dimension -- a minority Shi'ite regime confronting a Sunni insurrection. Any intensification of the conflict could ignite a much larger war in the Middle East.

The United States faces a special problem because the rebel forces fighting the Syrian government have been infiltrated by al Qaeda. We would have to find ways of supporting resistance forces we trust without allowing arms to fall into the hands of Islamic radicals. The Syrian government is taking advantage of this dilemma by claiming that Syria and the U.S. are "partners in fighting terrorism" and that Syria is "the last real secular state in the Arab world."

Syria is a tough test. "Once you're in, you can't unwind it," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Join Chiefs of Staffs Chairman Martin Dempsey warned a Senate subcommittee. On the other hand, Sen. McCain has said, "Everything that non-interventionists said would happen in Syria if we intervened has happened."

Everything but one thing: No American has been killed.