The red line fallacy: What everyone gets wrong about why the U.S. would strike Syria

A Syrian rebel stands next to burning tires in Maaret al-Numan. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty)

When you hear people talk about the possibly impending U.S.-led strikes against Syria, a major premise of any attack that both proponents and opponents tend to raise is that it would "restore American credibility." President Obama had made clear that the use of chemical was a "red line" for the United States, after all, and lobbing cruise missiles seems like a good way to show the world that he means what he says.

But the problem is that that there's little to no indication that this is actually guiding U.S. thinking. The concepts of American credibility and red lines might make a lot of sense from the perspective of Washington, D.C., where bluffing and pledge-keeping are important functions of the personality-driven political ecosystem. But they tend to have little place in international relations, a realm governed by very different rules. The U.S. decision to move toward possible strikes appears, rightly or wrongly, wisely or unwisely, to be all about reinforcing international norms. It's not about us; it's not about "because Obama said so." It's about "because international norms say so."

Washington has a tendency to perceive what happens in Washington as the most important factor in any event, which is a big part of why many here are focusing primarily on Obama's "red line" against chemical weapons. What this misses is that Obama's red line is only a year old, was never taken particularly seriously by the rest of the world (few missed Obama's reticence to intervene) and was always vague. More importantly, it missed that there is an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, which is far more established and taken more seriously than Obama's red line.

The international norm against the use of chemical weapons is old, reasonably well established and recognized by almost every country on Earth. It was established by the 1925 Geneva Protocols and has been observed far from perfectly but at least partially ever since. It's one of the few international norms restricting warfare that we have in the world. And, while Obama's red line might matter a whole lot in Beltway politics, the international norm against chemical weapons matters in just about every corner of the globe, because no country wants to expose itself to future chemical weapons use by letting the norm slacken.

As American University professor and multilateralism expert David Bosco quipped on Twitter, "Assad's key error was not realizing that enough scholarly articles had been written to turn the chemical weapons treaty into customary law." He's joking, of course, but there's also a lot of truth to this. The international arena has a lot of laws but it also has a lot of norms, which guide the behavior of individual states. "The American president wants to shore up his credibility abroad" is not one of those norms.

It's a bit telling that there has been lots of and lots of scholarship on international norms, particularly on the use of chemical weapons. But there are not many people who study "credibility" because it's just not as useful of a concept. We generally assume that states in the international arena are guided first and foremost by rational self-interest. Questions about a particular leader's "credibility" just aren't that useful because the international system assumes that any leader will make decisions based on current national interest, not on past rhetoric. Daryl G. Press, a Dartmouth professor, wrote an entire book arguing that there's no historical evidence suggesting that backing down in a crisis, for example as President Reagan did in withdrawing from Lebanon in 1982, reduces a country's future credibility.

By every indication, from its own rhetoric to its decision to possibly act on this seemingly egregious attack but not on previously reported chemical attacks, the Obama administration would launch strikes against Syria to punish the Assad regime for apparently using chemical weapons. The two big goals would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again and to deter any future military leader from using them, either.

The speed with which the United States has been pursuing these possible strikes, as more than a few critics have pointed out, might help to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons. But it's not doing a whole lot for the norm of international cooperation in international interventions, one that Obama has long signaled is very important to him. It's no secret that Russia and China would veto any action at the United Nations Security Council, but the United States could still be doing more to build a coalition for strikes among European and Arab allies. That's a fair criticism of the U.S. approach. And it also undermines the view that Obama is seeking to restore American credibility by proving that he always sticks to his word. If that were his goal, then surely he would be doing a lot more to adhere to his past pledges of international coalition-building.

Still, while the "red lines" and "American credibility" explanation for U.S. behavior makes little sense in international relations terms, it is true that the White House is first and foremost a domestic political institution, sensitive to the pressures of domestic politics. But the polling certainly seems to suggest that Americans don't want to intervene in Syria. If anything, political concerns would seem to point away from U.S. action on Syria. Clearly, there's something else at stake here. And the goal, whether or not Obama's plan is the right one for achieving it, goes way beyond credibility.




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Max Fisher · August 27, 2013

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