Barack Obama has a real problem. It's self-inflicted, really -- and it's a cautionary tale against articulating public positions that may seem correct and convenient at the time, but that can pose serious challenges down the road.
Obama has been confronted with evidence from a variety of credible sources -- including from his own intelligence community, with some caveats -- that Assad used sarin gas against his own people. Ever since August 2012, Obama has held that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a "red line" for the United States, and that crossing it would be a "grave mistake" for Assad. The president is now faced with a dilemma: Defending his red line could undermine his carefully crafted strategy of steering clear of direct military involvement in the Syria crisis.
Here are some things worth keeping in mind as the president grapples with his conundrum.
No more red lines
Whatever Obama does on Syria, he should make sure that he doesn't say anything that he's not prepared to act on. "As president of the United States, I don't bluff," he famously said with regard to U.S. policy toward Tehran. It's just as good advice when it comes to America's approach to Damascus.
U.S. street cred is already at all time low in the Middle East. We don't need what remains of U.S. credibility to be lost in the gap between the president's words and his deeds.
This has obvious implications for that other famous red line on Iran. First, there's a huge problem with defining where that line lies: Israel says Iran must be denied a nuclear capacity, and has put percentages on the danger zone for enrichment (see Bibi's cartoon bomb); Obama says Iran must be denied a nuclear weapon. That gap is already enormous enough even before we consider the issue of how to enforce any red lines, which have a way of turning pink when states reach the moment of truth. The broader point is: Who's going to take any U.S. red line on Iran seriously if the president isn't prepared to enforce his red line on Syria?
Syria isn't an opportunity
To Obama's critics, particularly the inestimable Sen. John McCain, Assad's use of chemical weapons isn't only a problem -- it's a chance for Washington to up the ante against Assad. Fair enough. But let's be clear about one thing: Syria was never an opportunity, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. After two years of violence, religion-fueled animosity, and civil war, it's not a land of milk and honey for the United States.
There are no good options in Syria. Choices run the gamut from unacceptable (do nothing) to ineffective (provide non-lethal assistance) to risky (arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone). Caution is still the order of the day.
Obama's reluctance has been justified by events
I know that's not a popular judgment in Washington, but it's true. The president's calculations have been risk-averse, matching the uncertainties of the situation. The rebels are divided and dysfunctional, far too many in the opposition are Islamist extremists, the humanitarian crisis is unmanageable -- and even if President Bashar al-Assad departs, it is uncertain who or what will assume responsibility for the mess that is left behind.
From Obama's perspective, one thing is clear: It won't and shouldn't be the United States. Even acting in concert with others, he's not prepared to own Syria if it means billions in financial and economic aid, let alone American peacekeepers on the ground.
Iraq and Afghanistan are false analogies, but they are apt in one regard. These two wars -- the longest in American history -- have cost thousands of American lives, billions of dollars, and damaged U.S. credibility for an end result that has not (yet) been worth the price. In short, and quite rightly, Obama doesn't want the United States to get stuck with the check on this one.
Iran, Iran, Iran
I've always believed that the other calculation that's influencing the president on Syria is the issue of Iran and its nuclear program. Many believe that bringing down the Assads is the way to weaken Iran, though the fall of the Syrian regime might only intensify the mullahcracy's need to protect itself and accelerate its nuclear program.
Still, the president knows there's a pretty good chance the Iranian issue may come to a crisis, and the United States may be forced to respond militarily. He is going to need Russian and Chinese support for whatever he does -- and he isn't going to get it on both Syria and Iran. Staying out of the Syrian crisis will give him more flexibility and options on Iran. Getting involved militarily could well lead the Russians and Iran to increase their own military support for the Assads too.
This time we're stuck
There used to be an ad for a muffler company: "You can pay me now, or pay me later." Obama chose to pay Syria later -- but now the long-deferred chit is coming due.
It's a headache for a president whose main mission was to get America out of bad wars, not into new ones. But there's likely no way around it -- sooner or later, Obama will have to make good on enforcing his red line. Failure to do so will undermine his credibility, encourage the Assad regime to deploy additional chemical weapons, and send a powerful signal to America's friends and adversaries that we don't mean what we say.
Obama won't be pushed into action -- he will patiently look for a middle option between doing nothing and going all-in. And whatever the president does, he'll ensure he has international support and legal grounds on which to act. The White House letter to McCain that admitted Assad's likely use of chemical weapons already pointed in that direction, declaring that the United States is "pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation" and "working with our friends and allies" to determine what occurred.
But a red line has indeed been crossed -- not only in terms of Syria's use of chemical weapons, but also in the slippery slide toward American military involvement. What Obama needs to decide is whether such military action is designed to deter the use of chemical weapons or topple the Assad regime by giving the rebels the advantages they've long sought -- weapons, a no-fly zone, or direct U.S. military strikes against regime targets.
There's a lot that's murky about Syria right now, but one thing is clear. For America, a messy situation is about to get a whole lot messier.