Why Is There a 'Red Line' on Chemical Weapons but Not on 70,000 Deaths?

Obama's strategy in the Middle East is 'engage where we must, disengage where we can'

Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack on Tuesday, in Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, March 23, 2013. (George Ourfalian/Reuters)

As evidence of the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons mounts, the Obama administration has further confused matters regarding its own stated "red lines." The evidence appears to be strong but not necessarily "conclusive." As the April 25th White House letter states, "the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions." This sort of rhetoric points to an administration that finds itself cornered but, at the same time, seems intent on postponing any decisive action for as long humanly possible. The debate over whether, how, when, and to what extent lines were crossed not only seems petty (and undermines the very notion of a red line); it is also a distraction.

Presumably, the Obama administration's red-lining of chemical weapons isn't just about the risk of mass civilian casualties. After all, mass slaughter -- with over 70,000 killed -- has already happened and hasn't apparently shaken the U.S. commitment to studied inaction. The real concern is over the security implications of chemical weapon use or transport. First, the weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors, metastasizing the terror threat. Second (and related to the first), the spread of chemical weapons would lead to unprecedented regional destabilization in the form of a sharp increase in refugee flows, which, in turn, could threaten the stability of friendly autocrats like the Jordanian monarchy.

These concerns are of course justified, but the focus on security implications -- rather than focusing on the 70,000 already killed by good old-fashioned artillery and aircraft -- suggests an outdated (and morally problematic) calculus for action. In saying that chemical weapons are a red line, the Obama administration is also saying that the killing of 70,000 Syrians is not a red line, which, when you think about it, is a remarkable thing to say.

More than two years after the Arab uprisings began, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that U.S. policy toward the Middle East is more or less the same as it was before. Whether it is Secretary of State John Kerry effusively praising regimes and failing to muster even a sentence of criticism; the unwillingness to condition economic assistance on democratic reform in countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan; or conducting business as usual in Bahrain, one of the worst human rights offenders in the region; the bottom line is much the same - security trumps all.

I joked on twitter recently that if an alien came from outer space and was only allowed to read transcripts of Secretary Kerry's regional press conferences, it would probably have no idea that something called the "Arab Spring" happened. For hardline realists, this is perhaps evidence of prudence and sobriety. They, and others, are right to point out that the United States isn't exactly a human rights NGO. It is the responsibility and duty of politicians to protect American citizens, not Syrians. This is all fair and good, but one would have hoped -- particularly after September 11th -- that we retired the notion that Americans can stay insulated from what happens in Syria, or Lebanon, or Jordan.

This leads us to an even more troubling question: if one of the world-historical moments of recent decades doesn't lead us to re-think the fundamental assumptions guiding U.S. policy, then what will? The timing, of course, was unfortunate. Arabs decided to have their revolutions in a post-Bush era of recession and self-doubt. Not only that, the Obama administration turned out to be more ideological than one might have expected. The unwillingness to entertain limited intervention in Syria -- despite there being both a compelling moral and strategic rationale -- points to a president who is not willing to re-examine positions and change course even after the situation on the ground has changed radically. The Obama administration simply does not want to intervene in Syria (again, just look at the excruciating wording of the White House letter ).

The basic thrust of Obama's strategy in the Middle East -- if one can call it that -- is engage where we must, disengage where we can. It is about reducing our footprint in a troubled region. It is about a loss of faith -- after the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan -- in America's capacity for "good" intervention. This is all understandable. But it is also unfortunate. Because halting the slaughter -- by targeting the Syrian military assets doing the actual killing -- is something that the United States and its allies could do, if they wanted to (former senior U.S. official Fred Hof outlines how here). It might not be enough to bring down the regime, at least not anytime soon, but it would be enough to protect and save at least some of the Syrian civilians who find themselves in the regime's crosshairs. Of course, for many, that's simply not a good enough reason. But it should be.