No, this isn’t the first line of some comic’s bad joke. Ever since the Syrian government conducted a large-scale chemical attack on its own people, I have been wondering why President Obama chose to make his response to that act a defining moment for his administration and, in his words, the world’s commitment to international norms. Yes, he did lay down the now-infamous “red line.” But come on, that was in response to a question during the presidential campaign. It was a throwaway line that he could have walked back from at any time, even after the August 21 event. Instead, he and his senior foreign and defense leaders decided to double and even triple down on his commitment, ratcheting up the rhetoric, comparing Syria’s president Bashar Assad to Hitler, invoking the memory of Munich, criticizing the U.N. Security Council and repeatedly bringing up the image of murdered Syrian children. Even when Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the legs out from under the administration, the President went on national television, repeating all the same arguments with which the public had been bombarded for two weeks plus adding an impassioned plea for the protection of international norms. President Obama didn’t just cross his red line he skipped back and forth over it more times than I could count. Why?
The answer may have nothing to do with chemical weapons use or the abominable regime in Syria and everything to do with nuclear weapons and the new regime in Iran. Events are coming to a head with respect to that country’s nuclear program. Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled some willingness to at least slow the pace of this program. However, Teheran also has increased the number of centrifuges it has busily enriching uranium. It is also feverishly working on developing longer-range ballistic missiles. Even more ominous, Iran recently signed a science and technology agreement with the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) that includes setting up joint scientific and technological laboratories, and exchange of scientific teams between the two countries. This is virtually a mirror image of an agreement the DPRK signed with Syria back in 2002 that, according to expert testimony before Congress, was the basis for Syria’s construction of a clandestine nuclear reactor that was a copy of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor. It was reported that DPRK scientists and technicians were killed during Israel’s 2007 air strike that destroyed the facility. Of course, Pyongyang could simply sell Iran a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium with which to make one or more nuclear weapon as well as the design for such a device.
What is more important than enforcing the international norm against the use of chemical weapons, particularly given that the act was committed by a state not a signatory to the international chemical warfare convention? The answer is preventing Iran, who is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This is the international norm that President Obama most wants to preserve and protect.
In the aftermath of the August 21 crime against humanity, the President seems to have concluded — and rightly so, in my opinion — that how his administration responded to this crossing of his red line, however inadvertently it had been painted, would have serious implications for Iran’s decisions regarding its nuclear weapons program. It was concern over Iran’s potential crossing of a much more serious red line that prevented the President from walking back from his warning to the Assad regime about using chemical weapons. That is why he and his senior officials piled it on with respect to Syrian use of chemical weapons, employing rhetoric that seemed way over the top given all the people Assad’s thugs had killed and their prior use of chemical weapons, albeit at a somewhat smaller scale. He wanted to send Iran’s leaders, particularly its new President, a message. It was actually a very smart policy.
That is, until the President was hamstrung by public opinion, undermined by Congress and, finally, sandbagged by Russian President Putin. Now the administration merely looks inept, inconsistent or both. More troubling, what net benefit will there be to the region, the United States or the world to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons only to be stuck with Iranian nukes?
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