As evidence of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons mounts, the Obama administration has further confused matters regarding its own stated “red lines.” The evidence appears to be strong but not necessarily “conclusive.” As the April 25th White House letter states, “the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” This sort of rhetoric points to an administration that finds itself cornered but, at the same time, seems intent on postponing any decisive action for as long humanly possible. The debate over whether, how, when, and to what extent lines were crossed not only seems petty (and undermines the very notion of a red line); it is also a distraction.
Presumably, the Obama administration’s red-lining of chemical weapons isn’t just about the risk of mass civilian casualties. After all, mass slaughter — with over 70,000 killed — has already happened and hasn’t apparently shaken the U.S. commitment to studied inaction. The real concern is over the security implications of chemical weapon use or transport. First, the weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors, metastasizing the terror threat. Second (and related to the first), the spread of chemical weapons would lead to unprecedented regional destabilization in the form of a sharp increase in refugee flows, which, in turn, could threaten the stability of friendly autocrats like the Jordanian monarchy.
These concerns are of course justified, but the focus on security implications — rather than focusing on the 70,000 already killed by good old-fashioned artillery and aircraft — suggests an outdated (and morally problematic) calculus for action. In saying that chemical weapons are a red line, the Obama administration is also saying that the killing of 70,000 Syrians is not a red line, which, when you think about it, is a remarkable thing to say.