WASHINGTON, September 4, 2013 – For many members of Congress, the issue of U.S. credibility in the wake of a chemical weapon “red line” being crossed in Syria may sufficiently haunt their consciences to side with President Obama’s plan for a punitive bombing campaign.
Although committee hearings have only just started, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi upped the political ante in Congress by declaring their inclination for intervention in Syria. The average American may not realize it, but the subtle message in these leadership cues is that Congress will have an entertaining debate, but in the end, Obama gets his war.
Setting aside the irony that America’s former colonial masters were able in British Parliament to pressure Prime Minister Cameron out of war with Syria but our own Congress will rubber stamp for President Obama, the issue of red lines and national pride needs to be thoroughly examined.
Flawed game theory
Obama Administration apologists claim that if America does not enforce its red line, rogue states will no longer respect the United States and would freely use weapons of mass destruction with impunity in the future. On Sunday, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers name-dropped North Korea and Iran on CNN’s State of the Union and added “We better send a clear message in a unified way that we’re not going to tolerate weapons of mass destruction – let alone their use.”
This argument falls flat when one considers that rogue actors by very nature of existence already reject Western norms in spite of the existing threat of international punishment. If anything, repeated demonstrations of American military power abroad reinforce the desire in rogue states to acquire weapons of mass destruction as a means to protect their sovereignty.
As Erich Fromm wrote in 1960, “To live for any length of time under the constant threat of destruction creates certain psychological effects in most human beings – fright, hostility, callousness … and a resulting indifference to all the values we cherish. Such conditions will transform us into barbarians.”
Rather than keeping the entire world under perpetual threat of U.S. military action, a more realistic option would be to deal with each state on a case-by-case basis and to seek rapprochement through pursuit of mutual interests.
Not every U.S. diplomatic encounter needs to be a zero-sum game of submit or be hit. What proponents of war in Syria fail to recognize is that the red line won’t stop in Syria. If a predictable assurance is set that the United States will, in fact, respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons, America is now on the hook to fight anywhere and everywhere.
It was this fear that motivated John Foster Dulles in 1954 to warn members of the Council on Foreign Relations that “if our policy was to remain the traditional one of meeting aggression by local and direct opposition, then we had to be ready to fight in the Arctic and the tropics, in Asia, in the Near East and in Europe; by sea, by land, and by air; by old weapons and new weapons.”
America cannot endure long with a policy of policing the world. As John Adams wrote, America’s “glory is not dominion but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and shield but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration, this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”
Contrary to recent belief, throughout history red lines have been boldly drawn and magnanimously withdrawn in far more serious moments of peril than Obama’s gaffe in Syria.
During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the United States and the Soviet Union had placed the political umbrellas of their opposing nuclear arsenals on the line. The perception of weakness of resolve on other side could have meant disruptive worldwide shifts in alliances, yet even the truculent Nikita Khrushchev offered these words to President Kennedy:
“Armaments bring only disasters. When one accumulates them, this damages the economy, and if one puts them to use, then they destroy people on both sides. Consequently, only a madman can believe that armaments are the principal means in the life of society … If people do not show wisdom, then in the final analysis they will come to a clash, like blind moles, and then reciprocal extermination will begin … Let us therefore show statesmanlike wisdom. I propose: We, for our part, will declare that our ships, bound for Cuba, will not carry any kind of armaments. You would declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any sort of forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.”
Khrushchev, for all of his rhetoric, recognized that war was unacceptable and gave the United States the opportunity to save face in its own hemisphere. President Kennedy graciously accepted and the world’s closest encounter with thermonuclear destruction ended peacefully. The Soviets turned their ships, dismantled their bases and both sides stood down their nuclear alert.
Both Khrushchev and Kennedy were under immense political pressure not to give in to each other and to appear resolute for the sake of alliance credibility. Neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy would win applause from hardliners for withdrawing missiles in Cuba and Turkey, yet both leaders recognized the value of never sacrificing the ultimate upon the altar of the immediate.
Khrushchev and Kennedy both made red lines … and both withdrew into diplomacy and compromise. Is there some reason why President Obama, who members of his own party characterized in 2008 as “the new JFK” can’t follow in the restraint of America’s greatest Democrat?
There is no fate but what we make. Instead of laying down red lines, President Obama should open a telephone line to Syria’s Assad and negotiate peace.
Isn’t that what he was given a Nobel Peace Prize to do?
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