In a press conference earlier today, President Obama very cautiously addressed the question of whether or not Assad crossed the chemical weapons “Red Line.” His conclusion? We don’t yet know, but if we do find out conclusively it would be a “game changer.”
Listening to his remarks, though, you got the very strong impression that President Obama does not want to find out conclusively, because he very much wants to avoid war. Judge for yourself:
Max Fisher notes that these remarks demonstrate that there has been no real change in policy since the Sarin gas incidents last week.
So, in the first comment, Obama only said that he would change how he thought about Syria and, in the second and more recent statement, seemed to shift from talking about how the U.S. would respond to how “the world” would respond. And if “the world” means the United Nations Security Council, which authorizes any multilateral military action such as the 2011 military intervention in Libya, then that’s not much of a threat. Both Russia and China have the ability – and a demonstrated willingness – to veto any UN action on Syria. There’s little indication that either state has changed its calculus on Syria just because of the U.S.’s red line.
All of this seems to suggest that the Obama administration has not changed its policy on military intervention generally, where it clearly prefers a multilateral approach, and on Syrian in particular, where it’s been skeptical that the U.S. can do more good than harm by intervening. Obama’s left the door open for some kind of response, but he seems to be pretty careful about not painting himself into any policy corners or pledging any specific response. As before, he’s hinted at the possibility of some kind of United Nations action, but it’s not clear what they would be or necessarily even anything more than requesting a formal investigation.
I think that’s about right. But it is also worth noting that current policy has the effect of delaying any decision that Obama might have to take. This should be seen as a deliberate tactic–and it could be a judicious approach so long as this period is accompanied by some sort of overture or outreach to Russia. Moscow holds all the diplomatic cards on Syria at the moment. Without Russian support, the “multilateral approach” crumbles. The more time Obama has to work with the Russians (so long as they are capable of being worked) the better the chances of a truly multilateral policy on Syria taking hold.