Remembering Obama’s “Red Line”

Interesting reminder.

It was a sunny morning on Saturday 31 August 2013 – Labor Day weekend in the US – when Barack Obama strolled into the Rose Garden of the White House. The last thing most Americans were thinking about was war in a far-off Middle Eastern country.

But Obama faced a dilemma. The decision he was about to announce would come to be seen as a defining moment for his presidency. It also marked a tipping point for the international strategic balance of power. It was a moment that would transform the civil war in Syria into the epic failure of our age.

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It was a moment full of dire portents. Obama’s disregard for his own “red line” was interpreted in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and other Arab capitals as confirming a fundamental shift – evidence that a chastened, post-Iraq America was retreating from its global policeman role. Obama’s hesitation gave Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, an opening. It fitted his core agenda: to rebuild Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and make Russia great again by restoring Soviet-era global reach.

It is far from clear what the impact of a US-led military intervention in 2013 would have been. It could have exacerbated the plight of Syria’s civilians without toppling the regime or curtailing the war. It could have escalated uncontrollably – although it is difficult to see how things could be worse than they are now.

But by deciding to hand off responsibility, Obama sent another damaging message: that the US, the world’s only superpower, and key allies such as Britain, were not prepared to fight for a free, democratic Syria, no more than they would fight for democracy in support of other Arab Spring revolts. They tried it in Libya in 2011 and quickly recoiled.