If Obama doesn’t act, Israel and Iran will draw their own conclusions
Foreign policy doctrines rarely survive the test of reality, but Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech has been cruelly challenged by Middle East events. One of the President’s messages in Cairo was that America had humbly learned to tackle international problems with the help of others. With Russia hindering tougher sanctions on Iran, impending military action against President Bashar Assad in Syria, and China’s threats to go to war with Japan over the disputed Sankaku islands, Obama’s 2009 confession sounds embarrassingly out of touch with reality.
The US president admittedly has a choice between bad options in Syria, but he is the one who cornered himself in a catch-22 situation. Had he not dithered for so long about imposing no-fly zones in Syria and about arming moderate rebels, al-Qaeda backed radicals would not have become so dominant on the ground. Because of his hesitation, Obama now has to choose between tolerating mass murder with chemical weapons and empowering unsavory jihadists. And if the US President doesn’t carry out his threat to intervene in Syria now that the “red line” of chemical weapons has almost certainly been crossed by Assad, Iran will rightly conclude that it can proceed with its nuclear program.
Barack Obama naively and arrogantly thought that being more sophisticated than George W. Bush would shield him from the tough dilemmas of foreign policy. In his Cairo speech, Obama dismissed what he called the “false choice” between national security and the constitution – hence his promise to close the Guantánamo prison. The fact that Guantánamo is still open goes to show that the choice between freedom and security is not that “false”, after all. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel peace prize, Obama disingenuously claimed that there was no need to choose between realism and idealism in foreign policy. If only life were so simple. No leader is spared difficult trade-offs and dilemmas, no matter how uplifting his speeches. Barack Obama is learning this lesson the hard way in Syria. His hubris has created nemesis.
A year ago, Obama declared that “we have been very clear with the Assad regime: that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” If the use of chemical weapons by Assad is confirmed and if the US president fails to carry out his threat, the consequences will be far worse than getting buried in the Syrian quagmire.
President Obama must now intervene, for three reasons.
First, the use of chemical weapons is against the rules of war, and if these rules are to have any meaning, they must be enforced. Second, after 100,000 dead and some 7 million refugees, the human tragedy is far beyond the toll that justified humanitarian intervention in places such as Bosnia in 1995. Third, America’s credibility and deterrence are at stake. The previous reported use of chemical weapons in Syria was ignored by the US president, and Assad is obviously testing Obama. If the “red lines” drawn in the sand by Barak Obama fade with the tide, Iran will take notice.
In retrospect, Obama’s efforts to conquer the hearts and minds of the Arab world have been an abject failure. He is now loathed in the Arab world, especially in Egypt where he is alternately accused of having supported Muhammad Morsi’s Islamist government and of backing the army’s coup.
If the use of chemical weapons by Assad is confirmed and if President Obama fails to act, Iran and Syria will be empowered, while America will lose its credibility and deterrence. The lesson for Israel will be obvious: if Obama is not willing to intervene in Syria, he will likely not intervene in Iran.
The Middle East is at a crossroad and Obama can no longer dither. The fact that, amidst the turmoil and violence, the US secretary of state is obsessed with establishing another failed state in the region, only adds insult to injury. If America fails to act in Syria, Israel will have to draw conclusions and take responsibility.
Dr. Emmanuel Navon heads the Political Science and Communication Department at the Jerusalem Orthodox College and teaches International Relations at Tel-Aviv University and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. He is a Senior Fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.