Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet
“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.
Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?
Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid down the gauntlet two months ago, when talking about Iran to the United Nations General Assembly. “At this late hour,” Netanyahu declared, as he held up a rough drawing of a bomb dissected by a red line, “there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs. That’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
President Barack Obama had put down his Syrian red line one month earlier. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” Obama declared, “but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
But do red lines work? Netanyahu seems to think so. “Red lines don’t lead to war,” he asserted, “Red lines prevent war.” His example: the Cuban missile crisis.
Unfortunately, more recent history tells another story. Remember the ultimatums that called on Iraq to get out of Kuwait in 1991; the Taliban to surrender Osama Bin Laden in 2001, and the demand Saddam Hussein leave Iraq in 2003? Each failed and war ensued.
With red line failure more often than not, both the United States and Israel must map a response. As it turns out, however, Washington may face the more immediate problem.
Netanyahu conceded in his U.N. remarks that there was time — until spring or summer 2013 — to rein in Iran’s suspect ambitions But Syria doesn’t offer the same luxury. The ever-mounting turmoil there could see either the Assad government turn chemical weapons against its people, as some former senior Syrian officials warn, or rebels and terrorists pilfer overrun sites.
As the Pentagon reportedly churns out secret option papers, the rest of us have been left out of the vetting. Yet in the aftermath of botched operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public should not accept opaque planning and decision-making — and neither should their representatives in Congress, despite the daunting challenge.
Consider the options, though none is too good:
First, the Pentagon estimates it would take 75,000 troops to secure the chemical weapons. But this could plunge the United States into Syria’s quagmire.
A lighter footprint could place Special Forces into critical sites. But small military units may be insufficient to secure the locations for the long term. Like air strikes—another option—the forces could explosively destroy the chemical depots, but at the risk of releasing toxic material that could linger downwind for weeks jeopardizing nearby populations.
In addition, neither Special Forces or air power will eliminate hidden arsenals. That would require investigative boots on the ground — and significant forces to protect them.
Coaxing chemical custodians to stay put and guard sites would be preferable. But fear of rebel or terrorist revenge once broader government defenses crumbled would encourage most to flee, leaving the weapons ripe for the picking.
Alternatively, the United States could encourage rebel groups under the new Syrian national coalition to safeguard any chemical depots they overrun. But Washington would have to bet that competing fighters would be equally responsible.
On the other hand, Washington could gamble that Syria would repeat Libya — where looters ignored chemical stocks. But that would be a bet too far.
A final option would conclude that Syria’s arsenal is just not Washington’s problem and the deadly consequence of its use no different than death from the bombs and bullets that already have killed 40,000 Syrians.
But unmonitored chemical stockpiles can open a Pandora’s Box to Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and the like, who may run off which chemical assets should the Assad regime lose control. Theft by terrorists could set off panic regionally and around the globe, and evoke terror were any used.
Of course, no one knows if the Syrian government, rebels or terrorists will cross the red line. But Syria’s descent into ever greater violence makes chemical weapons an increasing potential problem.
But ought the president alone decide military action? Though allowed under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, after 10 years of Middle East conflict, Congress should recapture some of its authority. With events in Syria moving rapidly, legislators must exercise their oversight responsibility.
Foreign policy, defense and intelligence committees should convene hearings promptly to educate themselves and the American public about the chemical weapons risks. But education should not be the goal. The hearings should lay the foundation for a sense of the Congress resolution that can define how far the country should fulfill the red line.
The American people have made a grave sacrifice of blood and treasure over the past decade. This is the least our representatives can do to assure that policy matches our vital interests.
PHOTO (Top) : Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he has drawn on the graphic of a bomb while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
PHOTO (Insert) Free Syrian Army fighters are seen after clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in Qasseer near Homs November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout
*This piece has been updated to reflect comments made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.