After this week’s chemical attacks in Syria, I decided to blog on our current U.S. position as it might compare to President Obama’s “red line” decision in 2012. During my research, I came across Derek Chollet’s 2016 article, “Obama’s Red Line, Revisited.” At that time, Mr. Chollet was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under President Obama. His article resonates today and possesses merit on President Obama’s handling of Syria’s chemical attacks in 2013.
But for reasons that are markedly different than what the Assistant Secretary surmised.
In 2012, President Obama in a White House press conference essentially established a “red line” policy on Syria’s “use or movement of chemical weapons”. The assumption being any violation of that red line would constitute U.S. military action. However, the president’s position was not a well thought out or a deliberated policy but an off the cuff answer to a reporter’s question during a press conference. The president responded by saying, “A red line for us is that we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Adding, “that would change my calculus, that would change my equation.”
And who would have thought that an off the cuff remark would plague us today
One could infer the president meaning, that if they cross the red line he will “use” military action versus “consider” military action. But later letters sent from Miguel Rodriguez, assistant to the president and director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, to Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin specifically stated,
“And the people in Syria and the Assad regime should know that the President means what he says when he set that red line. And keep in mind, he is the one who laid down that marker”.
A clear path soon becomes confusion
A year later, President Obama revisited the “red line” and muddied the waters in a statement made during a joint press conference with the Swedish prime minister in Stockholm, after he was asked whether “a strike [is] needed in order to preserve your credibility for when you set these sort of red lines?”
President Obama commented,
“First of all, I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.
Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that — in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act — that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.
And so, when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of the chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it.”
This clearly shows how the president waffled on this major policy issue and how easily he passed the buck.
Furthermore, and referring back to Assistant Secretary Chollet’s article, his defense of Obama is a telling miscalculation of the situation and as he describes some perceived brilliance behind reneging on the red line.
The Assistant Secretary states,
“But this conventional wisdom [U.S. use of force to address the chemical weapons threat and Syrian conflict] is wrong. Of course, some of the criticism can be explained by politics, with partisans unwilling to give Obama credit for any success. But many others criticize the policy less for its outcome than for the way it came about. This line of judgment reveals a deep—and misguided—conviction in Washington foreign policy circles that a policy must be perfectly articulated in order to be successful—that, in a sense, the means matter more than the ends. Far from a failure, the “red line” episode accomplished everything it set out to do—in fact, it surpassed our expectations.”
Secretary Chollet’s observation was that the “end justifies the means.” Which implies “that the outcome excuses any wrongs committed to attaining it.” And in some respects, this type of philosophy does play well as it did in 2013 with Assad announcing and dismantling his chemical weapons program. But in the global security environment, an expert knows better. There is no such thing as a “means to an end” diplomatically that does not goes unpunished or at a minimum create long-term effects.
Security is about basic human instincts
Since our cognizant beginnings, homo sapiens instinctually recognize and respect strength…and in today’s vernacular, power. Unlike our hunter-gatherer days, today we live in a complex society guided by laws, institutions, and governance. Our world today is about interdependence, technology, and complicated relationships. Yet, when it comes to security (unlike climate change) it still boils down to our instinctual attributes and that is strength wins. The biggest and the most powerful and more importantly the most willing to use it triumphs.
Although this may be true, our human regression does not mean that we cannot apply it in a diplomatic (negotiations) and humane (laws) manner. America does it often and would argue that even with the priority of protecting and supporting U.S. interests, a moral and ethical backdrop grounds our policies (unlike Russia and China).
At the end of the security day, we are a pack of animals.
And the leader must show confidence and a willingness to use its strength to calm the pack, ensure peace, and when challenged squash it. Any other way is a sign of weakness and will be taken advantage of or at a minimum diminish a leader’s influence (that means credibility).
Russia plays Obama like a fiddle
Further, in Assistant Secretary Chollet’s article, he infers to Russian involvement as a savior in making the right decision not to attack. The Russian’s brokered a deal with Assad to “admit to” and “dismantle” his chemical weapons. However, Russia’s involvement was very calculated and beyond any righteous assistance to the U.S., as it came at a time when their confidence in reestablishing itself as a global player was surging. And why not? An American president who showed little global leadership, one who advocated and practiced the diminishment of U.S. power, and was concerned more about global warming than global security – a destabilizing effect in a world full of thugs, which would result in an unexpected blowback.
Blowback and nefarious connections
President Obama failed to see Russia’s brokering intentions with the annexing of Crimea which occurred less than six months after they worked the chemical weapons deal with Assad (not to mention Russia’s later invasion of southeast Ukraine). And adding to this blowback and some nefarious connections, the U.S. was in the middle of secret negotiations with Iran on stopping its Nuclear weapons development (Iran being a primary backer of the Assad regime) — a deal now criticized as too lenient and does little to stop their nuclear program. How does this coincidental (?) negotiation not play into each outcome?
Furthermore, Obama’s blatant denial and passing the “red line” buck to the international community, unmasks his original intention to never use military force. And lastly, and more importantly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged and filled a void created by a lack of U.S. resolve and inaction…hello!
All of this did nothing but diminish our global credibility and create a far more complicated and deadly situation across the world. And the previous administration’s inexperience in connecting these dots brings us to today’s situation; ISIS is a global threat, Russia has reestablished itself as a global influence, Iran is reasserting itself in the region (and possibly on the way to a nuclear weapons capability?), the Arab states distrust us, and to add insult to injury, Assad never gave up all his chemical weapons.
And ironically, here we are today striking Syria three years later for the same criminal act. But in a far more complicated and dangerous position.
It takes experience to see beyond easy victories
There is no doubt that it was a complex set of problems that needed skilled diplomats and security strategists to put all the pieces together. I can tell you from experience that people like Mr. Chollet are barely qualified to handle it. As were anyone in the Obama security staff. Almost all the people advising the president were political appointees (including Mr. Chollet). Which means they are picked by the president and partial to his politics and preferences, not necessarily qualified for their position.
For example, from November 2008 to January 2009, Mr. Chollet was a member of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team. His appointment was more of an award than it was to provide the secretary of defense with any expertise. Moreover, President Obama is an academic, which is his comfort zone, so many of his selections are from ivy league schools with little practical experience in security, to include himself. You would think that such intelligence could overcome inexperience but theory and application are two different things.
And Mr. Chollet’s inexperience and lack of expertise are on full display in his article…let’s hope that President Trump can learn from this shortsightedness.
What can Trump learn from the follies of 2013
1) Have the right people working this issue. With the addition of Gen Mattis as Secretary of Defense, I would only listen to his advice, not his staff (still full of Obama appointees). In addition, you have the right National Security Advisor in LTG McMaster’s. Between these two men and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Trump has a wealth of experience in the region and they will provide him the best advice. Don’t’ make the same mistake President Obama did and not listen to the military.
2) Don’t trust Russia. But develop a relationship with Putin. Find common ground so that the U.S can influence Russia and use their Assad relationship to an advantage.
3) Don’t trust Assad. He is a dictator and survival is his top agenda item. But don’t count him out in the solution. He is still in charge and has the only institutional apparatuses and organized military. And we should take a lesson from Iraq when you decide to take away every governmental structure to include the guy in charge — ten years of a bloody insurgency and civil war. And take note, the Obama team missed the basic nature of a dictator, they will do anything to survive. Assad giving up all his chemical weapons was never in his calculus. Without chemical weapons and backed into a corner he was done. Be aware he has more and is willing to use them – call it a diplomatic tool.
4) Don’t trust Iran. The Assad chemical lesson should be the same nuclear lesson for Iran. Syria and Iran are cut from the same cloth and as Assad showed us that he had no intention of giving up his chemical weapons the Iranians have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons program.
5) Don’t trust the rebels. Historically they are good during a revolt but fail to govern. There are several rebel factions within Syria that are part of the peace equation. And We have seen today what rebel control brings to a nation (e.g. Libya, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan) — chaos and deeper problems!
6) Don’t trust the international community. As much as the international community condemns the use of chemical weapons, there is not one law, agreement or resolution that endorses military action. Not even the 2003 U.S Syria Accountability Act which ceases the production and development of chemical weapons. No enforcement means obligatory compliance and to add to this folly, Syria did not sign the Chemical Weapons Convention which is a binding international law banning their use. Essentially, the international community and all agreements are worthless.
Plan as if you are on your own
I will share with you a personal experience as a former lead advisor to a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several years ago, I was back-seating my boss in what is referred to as a TANK meeting in the Pentagon. These high-level meetings are for the Joint Chiefs to review, assess and decide on top military issues of the day. Normally, the agenda is jam packed but on this day, there was only one. It was Jan of 2014 and the president was still waffling on whether to attack Syria in retaliation for his use of chemical weapons the previous summer. He had already passed the buck to congress and was now passing it to the military. As a point of reference, the president’s indecisiveness and pacifism were well known in the Pentagon; his modus operandi (M.O.).
I watched eight years of President Obama repressing generals and appointing placating academics to key Pentagon positions.
The military position
The chairman walked into the meeting as the vice chairman was briefing the intelligence situation. Normally, a four-star admiral does not give the intelligence brief but the gravity of this historic issue called for it. And to further emphasize the importance of this meeting, the room is typically full of “strap hangers” but today it was only the JCS and one back seater. The group spent an hour and a half deliberating the decision to strike Syria. And as you can imagine with this type of talent in the room a healthy and comprehensive conversation ensued. However, in the end, and what became the JCS advice to the President reflected the very pacificism of the president’s MO.
My point is not to belittle a JCS position (an incredibly difficult issue to decide with far reaching effects). But more to my opinion on how the discussion was approached.
My opinion is best described in my response to my boss when asked for my thoughts on the JCS decision.
I told him that in dealing with the Middle East a leader’s decision to use military force is a “Prince” discussion. I further elaborated by referring to the book “The Prince” written by the 16th-century Italian politician Machiavelli. The book is a practical guide for “ruling” based off Machiavelli’s experience during a brutal city-state period in what is now Italy. And more importantly, Machiavelli’s timeless advice to maintain power, “it is better to be feared than to be loved.”
Machiavelli’s “The Prince” basically describes two bookends of thought. One side is benevolence and the other is brutality.
I told my boss that the key to leadership in the Middle East is the artful positioning between benevolence and brutality. And in Syria, they only understand one side.
If you hit Assad upside the head he will pay attention. Any other method is weak and will fail. His chemical attacks this week reaffirm his brutal nature and the need for brutal reaction. Our response must be quick and ruthless and not stop until he is out of power. Machiavelli’s advice is as true today as it was 500 years ago.
When it comes to the Middle East, the president must be the brutal prince.