The Red Line Statement Not a Blunder

Co-authored with Dr. Michael Bluman Schroeder

There are purely American red lines. During the Cold War, red lines were critical to our containment policy toward the Soviet Union. But Bashar al-Assad hasn't crossed a red line set by the United States; he crossed one that the world's governments set decades ago.

During his visit to Sweden and now the G-20 in Russia, President Obama is making this point at every stop and to every world leader. He should have made it earlier; it would have made coalition-building easier.

The United Nations is likely to report shortly that chemical weapons were used in Syria in violation of a widely accepted international norm dating back to the 1899 Hague Convention banning the use of asphyxiation gas. Not acting puts the credibility of all nations, not solely the United States, in jeopardy, a point often lost in the current debate.

Some policymakers and pundits suggest President Obama made a political blunder by drawing a red line. On March 21, the president declared he "will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists." As Zeke Miller pointed out in Time on April 25, 2013, "Seven Times the White House Discussed the Syria Red Line."

Many commentators argue that the president's comments committed the United States to unilateral military action to defend its credibility. Critics add that the president made this commitment without sufficiently considering the viability of backing it up. In turn, other countries, including some allies, use this commitment to focus the conversation on the benevolence of American military power -- a debate preferable to conceding that there are no good options in Syria and accepting some responsibility for inaction.

The president may have insufficiently considered the implications of his red line comment but we disagree the comment was inherently a blunder. The president was restating conventional wisdom: Using chemical weapons transgresses an international red line that all governments must defend. At that time we would have expected that most world leaders would have also drawn that line if asked. Lucky for them, they apparently were not asked. Asking might have avoided the spectacle of allies like Britain having its Parliament vote not to participate in military strikes.

The president's comment could have been an opportunity to preemptively build a coalition by giving other leaders a direct stake in Syria. The president's national security team should have asked allies and adversaries alike to make the same comment. In fact, why the White House did not ask other leaders is a mystery. Perhaps the White House didn't believe Assad would use chemical weapons or perhaps they believed a threat from the world's sole superpower was an adequate deterrent.

If asked, other leaders had little reason not to publicly agree that the line exists and should be defended, especially before the line was actually crossed. In turn, these leaders would now find it harder to avoid the question of what form a collective response should take and what they would contribute to that response, military or otherwise.

This alternative strategy could also have made UN Security Council dynamics more conducive to coalition building. Before chemical weapons were used, Russia and China had fewer reasons not to come out publicly against them. Indeed, these countries may have seen such a statement as bolstering their claims that rather than self-serving Great Powers, they were protecting the international order against the destabilizing policies of the interventionist-minded Western Great Powers and their Gulf allies. Further, a refusal to reaffirm the norm would have signaled that they were anticipating and tacitly accepting future violations.

Of course, this is hindsight. As such, it can only offer valuable lessons, among them the need to create the conditions for coalition building before red lines have been crossed. But it also offers guidance for the immediate policy problem. First, Congress should join the president in stressing to our allies and regional partners that Assad has transgressed a line that nations have collectively promised to defend. They should remind reluctant leaders that this is not about accepting an American response; it is about contributing to an international one. For their part, other world leaders should insist the U.S. stay engaged and insist that the president and Congress not set take-it-or leave it terms, terms that deter cooperation and make the debate about whether the U.S. is acting unrestrained.

A unilateral strike may or may not restore U.S. credibility. But a unilateral strike -- as much as collective hand-wringing and inaction -- assuredly demonstrates that international cooperation didn't defend our widely-accepted standards of humanity.

Co-author Dr. Michael Bluman Schroeder is Professorial Lecturer at American University's School of International Service where he teaches courses on international cooperation and the United Nations.