As the United States moves closer to military intervention in Syria, it has become clear that four-plus years of an opaque foreign policy has finally forced President Barack Obama’s hand in the matter. His own secretary of state outlined the reasons in a speech this past Friday.
In commenting on the situation in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry, sounding more hawkish than his previous two-plus decades in the Senate would suggest, stated that the decision to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people was “directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something.”
Kerry continued by stating that adversaries of the United States were “watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”
The “they” that Kerry was referring to was, among others, Iran and North Korea.
Leadership in both Pyongyang and Tehran have watched over the past 4-1/2 years as Obama has dithered on issues such as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as the many provocative missile tests conducted by North Korea, and have likely concluded that the president is long on rhetoric but lacking in his will to take any action to back up his words.
The president’s earlier remarks that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a “red line” has put his administration in an untenable position. Fail to act in the face of clear and undeniable evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons and the world will believe that the president stands for nothing and that his words are meaningless.
It is precisely this concern that prompted leaders in South Korea to prod Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on the Syria issue while he was traveling through Asia. As the Wall Street Journal reported this weekend, South Korea is concerned that inaction on the part of Obama will embolden North Korea into believing that there would be few repercussions should the regime decide to use chemical weapons against their neighbors to the south.
A similar concern no doubt exists with the ongoing issue over Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear capability. No matter how many times the president has stated that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, a failure to act in Syria, after emphatically stating that certain deplorable activities would warrant a U.S. response, will no doubt cement the image of Obama as a paper tiger among those seeking primacy in the Middle East.
And all of this uncertainty has sown skepticism among America’s strategic allies throughout the world as they question to what extent they can rely on the backing of the United States.
Obama’s recent stutter and pivot toward Congress may be an attempt to push the responsibility to action onto others, but it will not absolve him of the ultimate decision to move on Syria.
Leading from behind has not exactly paid dividends. The president has brought his administration to a point where it can no longer rely on rhetoric alone, and he is now faced with the glaring reality that words do have consequences.