Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



American Credibilty Suffers

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 13, 2013

On Tuesday, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons against children demanded an American strike to deter future use of these barbaric weapons and asked: “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”

Unfortunately by choosing to delay striking Syria, he has chosen a world where American credibility and international norms are in tatters.
Deterrence is based on the idea that certain actions will be met with a swift and appropriate response that makes engaging in those actions too costly. The fact that the president proclaimed a red line against the use of chemical weapons last year and has vacillated about striking Syria after accusing it of using them in March and August fails the swiftness test. And describing the strikes as “pinpricks” or “unbelievably small” suggests that our military response would not be robust.
When you combine the president’s indecisiveness and Congress’ strong opposition to supporting the air strikes, the United States sent a clear message that it did not want to strike Syria. Thus, Russia, which has protected Syria from international political pressure, and has continually armed the Bashar Assad regime, jumped on Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-handed comment to not attack Syria if it turned over all its chemical weapons. Wanting to avoid congressional repudiation of his policy and personally unsure about striking Syria, Obama reluctantly accepted Russia’s proposal.
Realizing that the United States doesn’t want to strike Syria, the bargaining advantage clearly belongs to Russia, and Syria. Russia will only agree to a resolution with weak enforcement mechanisms, while the negotiating period gives it more time to hide its chemical weapons, and Obama’s dithering emboldens Syria to only declare part of its arsenal. Due to the Syrian civil war, the United Nations is unlikely to be able to locate, secure, transport and destroy declared stockpiles. Since the Assad regime is winning the civil war, it wins politically by accepting a feeble UN resolution, understanding the terms will be neither carried out nor enforced while it is in power.
Moreover, Obama’s actions and American opposition to further military engagement undermines our global leadership role, harms our ability to advance our values, and makes our allies question our commitment to them. These actions also diminish our bargaining advantage with nations such as Iran and North Korea. Even though we have drawn red lines with both nations over nuclear weapons, they are now less convinced the U.S. will use military force to deter their actions, which makes them less likely to engage in real bargaining.
Finally, Obama’s action undermines the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. While dictators have used chemical weapons in the past, the world has largely ignored those efforts. However, the president very publicly proclaimed a red line, declared that the world set a red line and acted as if he would enforce it. By failing to strike Syria, the U.S. and the world signal that this international norm can be ignored, which increases the probability that a rogue nation or group will use these weapons in the future.
This column appeared in the Sept. 13th edition of The Jackson Sun