One of the few effective arguments that the Obama administration has used in support of military action in Syria is that it is important to deter other rogue states determined to acquire, and threatening to use, weapons of mass destruction. National Security Advisor Susan Rice returned to that argument in remarks to the New America Foundation Monday, emphasizing the need to deter nations like Iran and North Korea.
One problem with that argument is that the “red line” on Syria was crossed long ago. In April, even CNN’s David Gergen was incredulous at President Barack Obama’s failure to act after evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime had surfaced: “Why did he draw the red line without knowing what he was going to do next?” Gergen asked, exasperated, during the Apr. 28 airing of CBS News’ Face the Nation.
Another problem with the argument is that the kind of “limited” strike that the Obama administration is seeking is unlikely to be a deterrent. If a dictator like Assad can use chemical weapons and survive, that suggests to his opponents that he is invincible–unless they can obtain chemical weapons, too. The problem is not the weapons but the regime, and its allies–but Obama refuses to take on that larger challenge.
Finally, the argument is flawed by the fact that while the Obama administration might purport to send a message to Iran through a Syrian airstrike, it has sent the opposite message through repeated attempts to slow sanctions and revive talks, though the Tehran regime clearly has no interest in compromise. Unless the administration revises its approach to the region, no red lines, in Syria or elsewhere, will be taken seriously.