“If commitments could be undone by declaration they would be worthless in the first place.” – Thomas Schelling
So far, President Obama’s declaration of a “red line” against Syria has proved mostly ineffective. Why did he publicly state his “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons? He was asked a question and he had to answer, but (being a politician) he would have had to realize the consequences of his statement. At the time, whether he knew it or not, he was attempting to use deterrence, which, unfortunately, did not work. Now he’s created a conundrum for himself that could ultimately make him look weak to countries such as Iran, North Korea, and China.
In Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence he writes on deterrence, coercive violence, compellence, and interdependence of commitments. While it seems likely that Syria will hand over their chemical weapons (thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Russia) without suffering a military strike from the United States, what affect does this have on President Obama’s use of deterrence against other countries? Since President Obama created and clearly communicated his “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons and has failed to make good on his promise to take a stand against Assad’s use of them on his own people, how can the President not look weak to the international community?
He doesn’t seem to be helping himself, either. On September 4th he said that he didn’t set a red line against Syria. Rather, he was speaking for the world. While that may be true and while the entire world probably agreed with what he said, he is still the President of the United States. Even if he originally said a “red line for us” and used “us” when speaking at that White House press conference in 2012, he can’t retract his statement and dismiss its significance by saying he was speaking for everyone.
It would not be wise to think that President Obama’s inaction on his own “red line” will not affect his deterrence efforts elsewhere in the world. While some in the international community may recognize that the United States should not get involved in another conflict in the Middle East and that it is in President Obama’s favor that Syria seems to be willing to hand over their chemical weapons, to think that other countries he has threatened will still hold his threats as credible could be mirror-imaging on the part of the United States. We hope and believe that President Obama would make good on his threats against North Korea and Iran, but will they believe his promises to be true in light of Syria?
Schelling writes that the reason we commit ourselves to certain things is because our commitments are interdependent. Therefore, if we back out of a commitment we made against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, it directly affects our commitment against Iran (interdependence of commitments).
Since President Obama’s “red line” against Syria hasn’t worked out for him so far, his comments towards Iran are interesting. This past weekend he said, “My suspicion is that theIranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria]to think we won’t strike Iran…I think what the Iranians understand is that thenuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical-weapons issue,that the threat against Israel, that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer toour core interests.” The world understood that President Obama would act if Syria used chemical weapons and it looks like they were wrong about that. So could he be wrong about this?
While I sincerely hope that President Obama is correct and that the Iranians really are analyzing this Syrian situation the way that the President thinks they’re analyzing the situation, could this just be his attempt at saving face? As Americans, we want to see our President succeed, especially in his foreign policy. President Obama set the stage and waited on Assad. A deterrent threat is supposed to change the consequences if the act in question (the use of chemical weapons) is taken. Assad was not stopped by deterrence and no action was taken against him. Even if our inaction might be justified, only time will tell just how serious our commitments will be taken in the future.
In conclusion, the President would do well to read Schelling’s book, as it might offer insight into how he should approach threats in the future.