Obama's 'Red Line' For Syria, But Not for Iran

Which poses the greatest danger to U.S. interests?

On August 20, US President Barack Obama held an impromptu news conference after reports surfaced that Syrian President Bashar Assad was moving his country's chemical weapons stockpiles.

Obama publicly issued this warning: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime…that ared line for us is [when] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.”

Obama then implied he would intervene militarily if the delineated threshold was crossed, cautioning of “enormous consequences” if Assad did not heed his words. He also stated that while he had refrained up to “this point” from ordering troops into Syria, the deployment of chemical weapons “would change [his] calculations significantly.”

Fast forward to September 9, less than three weeks later. Following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's appeal to the international community to set limits on Iran's nuclear progress, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bluntly retorted: “We’re not setting deadlines.” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland elaborated the next day, “it is not useful to be…setting deadlines one way or the other [or] red lines.”

The inconsistency is striking: According to the Obama administration, it is appropriate, even beneficial, to delineate “red lines” on Syria, but not Iran.

And to prove there is no disconnect between Clinton’s statements and the US president’s Iran policy—given that Obama himself did not weigh in on Iran as he did on Syria, which itself is telling—consider her remarks on August 11, ten days before Obama’s Syria comments, which prove they are on the same page: “Everyone has made it clear to the Syrian regime that [the use of chemical weapons is] a red line,” Clinton revealed during a press conference in Turkey.

So what exactly is going on here?

Ultimatums are productive only when the corresponding threat is credible. In other words, because Obama apparently is prepared to go to war in Syria to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons, he is ready to state so definitively. That the same rule does not apply in the case of Iran, however, suggests that Obama is not willing to confront the Mullahs militarily, despite his repeated affirmations that "all options are on the table."

In fact, that Obama's strongest declaration to date on Iran's nuclear program is that he reserves the right to use force to stop it—as if this is not rhetorical given his role as commander-in-chief—further reinforces this impression. Moreover, just because an option is lying around on a table somewhere does not entail that such recourse will be implemented or even that it is seriously being considered.

Obama’s vagueness on the matter speaks for itself.

Proponents of the US president will invariably come to Obama’s defense by attributing his conflicting policies to the “vast differences” between the situations in Syria and Iran. This expansive chasm, they will claim, accounts for Obama’s divergent approaches, which will even be portrayed as a testament to his wisdom.

A strike on Tehran will rally Iranians behind the regime; military action will merely delay the Mullahs’ nuclear program but not destroy it; the cost of oil will skyrocket in the case of an attack, leading to a severe global financial crisis the effects of which will be worse than a nuclear-armed Iran.

Obama supporters will find a myriad of reasons to explain away the contradiction.

Fundamentally, though, the issue in both crises is one and the same: The imperative of preventing tyrants from causing devastation with weapons of mass destruction.

That stopping Iran from going nuclear may be more complicated and possibly have graver consequences does not alter this basic reality; it simply makes taking the necessary action more difficult. This seemingly is the true reason underlying Obama’s refusal to draw clear “red lines” on Iran—he does not want to commit himself to doing the correct, albeit hard, thing.

This is why PM Netanyahu’s appeals to the US have all been rebuked.

It is why it is time for a new Israeli strategy.

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