US presidents love to look tough. But why don’t they ever realize that it is always a mistake to publicly draw lines in the sand? It makes you look strong at that moment but boxes you in later, because political reality is always more complicated and requires flexibility and nuance in dealing with it. In the case of Syria, president Obama made the mistake nine months ago in a press conference of declaring that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, they would be crossing a ‘red line’, leaving unsaid what he would do in response.
Of course, this provided a source of hope for those who wanted the US to get militarily involved and resulted in people eagerly watching to see if this happened. Sure enough, recently some reports of chemical use emerged. Then other reports started appearing that it was not the Syrian government but the rebels who may have used it. As is often the case, all these reports are inconclusive.
But now people are demanding that Obama must do something, anything, because US credibility is at stake. As Marc Lynch writes, looking at the Syrian situation in the context of the Arab Spring in general:
Washington today is consumed by another round of its endless debate about whether to intervene in Syria, this time in response to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. I have little to add to the thousands of essays already published on this, beyond what I’ve already argued. I might add that defending American “credibility” is always a bad reason to go to war. The reputation costs of not enforcing a red line are minimal, and will evaporate within a news cycle; military intervention in Syria will be the news cycle for the next few years. The United States should act in Syria in the way that it believes will best serve American interests and most effectively respond to Syria’s horrific violence, not because it feels it must enforce an ill-advised red line.
Obama’s righteous indignation over chemical weapons was always disingenuous but illustrates how history is more than what happened in the past. It is also how we remember what happened. And one of the major ways that history gets rewritten is by acts of omission. One of the reasons why ordinary Americans are continuously puzzled by the behavior of other nations towards us is that the past negative actions of the US are either omitted or downplayed while those of opponents are repeatedly told and emphasized. In the case of Iran, for example, the taking of the embassy hostages is constantly recalled while the earlier CIA-backed overthrow of their elected government is hardly ever mentioned. One should hardly be surprised when people have the sense that the US is uniquely noble in its actions, unlike other countries, and yet uniquely put upon.
A recent example of this kind of omission was when NPR had a story on the history of chemical warfare. After hearing it, I sent them the following letter.
In your program today, Larry Abramson spoke about the red line drawn over chemical warfare since World War I. But he made no mention at all of the massive use of Agent Orange and other chemicals by the US in Vietnam which caused horrendous levels of death and suffering to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people. Does NPR think the use of chemical weapons is only worth mentioning when used by other countries?
I did not expect them to read my letter on air. So why did I bother to even write it? I think it is necessary to let them know that at least some of their listeners are aware of history.