THE BLOG
09/20/2013 03:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2013

Obama's Principled "Red Line" on Syria (Which, By the Way, Worked)

No good deed goes unpunished, as the French say. Case in point: President Obama's drawing and holding a "red line" against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons on his own people.

Consider the abuse Mr. Obama has taken in his handling of this crisis. While some few have commended his actions (here and here), many more have been critical, calling him "problematic" and "an embarrassment," "anchorless," "bumbling" and "amateur hour" -- and that's from his "friends" on the left. On the right, criticism ranges from calling his actions an "absolute disaster for what remains of American prestige" to his being diagnosed as "losing touch with reality" and suffering from "psychological trauma induced by his multi-year fiasco in Syria."

And from every side come declarations that Obama is "being played" by Russian president Vladimir Putin in the recent diplomatic maneuvering to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons. What's next: Obama "lost" Syria? Already we hear eulogies for his failed presidency.

Actually, Mr. Obama may have gained a great deal. Amidst all the denunciation, a case can be made that, by investing in principle -- the absolute prohibition on the use of chemical weapons -- Mr. Obama has facilitated, at least for now, salutary results with the Russian-engineered diplomatic solution. This process was convoluted in the extreme, but Mr. Obama's commitment to principle throughout was key.

Principle can't be declared by half-measures; like Martin Luther the Protestant reformer, one must draw the line and declare, "Here I stand." Mr. Obama took that stand a year ago, when he first laid down the "red line" about Assad's alleged gassings, with statements he made both in public and in private, raising the matter with Putin at the G-20 meeting last year, in 2012.

With the ghastly chemical attack of Aug. 21 on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta -- in which over 1400 people, including more than 400 children, were reportedly killed by chemical-filled rockets -- Mr. Obama, compelled to defend that principle, reinforced his threat of launching military strikes as punishment against the alleged perpetrator, Assad and his military. In reaction, the anti-war left protested vehemently, as did the general public, tired of 10 long years of war.

Then, two weeks ago, when Mr. Obama expanded the principle regarding chemical weapons ban from himself to the world -- "I didn't draw the red line. The world drew a red line" -- he was accused, again from all sides, of off-loading from his own shoulders onto the world the onus for his bad first call about red lines. This is when he allegedly "lost touch with reality."

But, exasperating as it is to argue established facts -- which facts the commentariat both left and right largely failed to note: Mr. Obama was exactly right when he asserted that the world has indeed drawn the red line, emphatically and repeatedly, against chemical weapons -- and established a body of law -- including, notably, the Hague Convention of 1899, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 (to which Syria is a signatory), and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 (graph of laws here). Few critics have noted it's this latter convention -- again, part of the world's red line to which Mr. Obama rightly pointed -- that Assad now agrees to sign.

And now, Mr. Obama is corroborated by the U.N. inspectors' report confirming that chemical weapons were in fact used in the Aug. 21 attack, which attack the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon characterizes as a "war crime."

With this evidence, Mr. Obama has grounds to take Assad to the International Criminal Court and sue him for crimes against humanity. The Russian diplomatic effort must be given a chance to succeed, of course, but should Assad renege on disposing his chemical weapons or, worse, use them again on civilians, a real possibility if he feels he's losing in Syria's civil war, Mr. Obama can always resort to The Hague for justice -- a case, again, which he himself teed up when he drew the "red line" against the use of chemical weapons. The symmetry is perfect.

It was when Mr. Obama stayed his sword arm and deferred to Congress for approval of air strikes that he incurred the greatest critical abuse, for his "irresolute" leadership. But, my fellow Americans, by then he'd heard our protests against any military strikes, in poll after poll after poll. Perhaps he wanted to bring the people's elected representatives in on the decision? And, think about it: Would we have gotten to a diplomatic solution with the amoral Assad without the threat of war?

We also see the "offhand" diplomacy of Secretary of State John Kerry derided, when he said, parenthetically, Assad could avert an air strike by just giving up his chemical weapons. There was some walking back of his comment -- in that press conference we saw diplomacy, a messy process usually conducted behind closed doors, done in public, awkwardly. But clearly, both the White House and State are working from the same scenario: ridding Syria of chemical weapons. This is a problem?

Much also is made of Mr. Obama being saved by Mr. Putin. Conservative critics mock the community organizer outmaneuvered by the KGB man. But, again, Mr. Obama conferred with Putin about Syria on several occasions. And, really, can we be unhappy that a resolution to the Syria chemical weapons crisis may be at hand, even if it was cinched by our former Cold War rival? Welcome to the international system, Comrade. Meanwhile, no one forgets Putin's history, least of all Mr. Obama, nor that Syria's chemical weapons stock, one of the world's largest, was largely facilitated by Russia. For now, though, all eyes are on the new statesman to deliver on Syria.

Back to the "red line," Mr. Obama's so-called "bad first call" that incited universal hoots. Consider, please: This red line comes from a high, humanitarian place. What conscientious person can see images of Syrian civilians in the Aug. 21 attack convulsing in death throes -- those of dying children are especially hard to bear -- and not want to rain death on the perpetrator? What member of the world's humanity does not fervently wish chemical weapons never to be used again? Should there be no response, only silence, to Assad's crimes? This is the moral question Mr. Obama had to ponder.

The problem, of course, comes with the kind of response: whether to launch a military strike, or go the diplomatic route, or sue in international court. Recall that the debate here, up until the diplomatic breakthrough, was almost exclusively military in focus -- to strike or not to strike -- instigated by Mr. Obama's own threat of force.

But air strikes in combination with chemical weapons pose major problems -- which the American public was quick to see, a course of thinking Mr. Obama himself may have traveled. One's first reaction is, "Yes, bomb away," to punish Assad and ram home the point, "Never again." But then one sees the problems: strikes hitting chemical depots that in turn release more chemicals; hitting depots where chemical weapons have been moved; creating chaos allowing jihadists to seize these weapons; killing more innocent civilians as inevitable "collateral damage"; and the risk, as Assad himself threatens, of sparking regional war or other "repercussions."

For all these factors, Syria presents a truly knotty problem. Yet critic after critic, even while acknowledging Syria presents no good choices, nevertheless pounded Mr. Obama for the choices he took. Give me a president who can evolve his thinking -- include Congress, stay the sword (though he retains that prerogative) -- rather than stay a misguided course, as his predecessor did. (Imagine the critics' onslaught if he held that course.) Thankfully, Mr. Obama premised his Syria policy on humanitarian principle -- to rescue humanity and its children from the agonies of chemical death -- a moral through-line which history will show was defensible.

The left, usually quick to embrace a humanitarian cause, made little note of it in its anti-war protest. And conservative critics, lacking memory or honesty, were silent in contrasting Mr. Obama's actions with George W. Bush's rush to war in Iraq, which was fueled by fraudulent intelligence of WMD and totally dismissive of substantial public protest -- neither of which conditions apply to Mr. Obama's actions on Syria.

Finally: Is it not possible that Mr. Obama, one cool customer, has been playing the long game all the while? Committed as he was to a "soft," humanitarian objective -- fortifying the international ban on chemical weapons when it was abrogated -- isn't it possible that he could see he'd need to brandish the sword and threaten military force.... which he did....which in turn he could imagine the American public would protest... which we did, big-time... which protest he'd bow to and turn to Congress... and then to State... which finessed closure on the international stage, where he needed to get to for maximum global buy-in? And just maybe, playing the long game by whispering in Putin's ear last year, he snookered Putin into statesmanship?

Maybe Mr. Obama, the "over-thinking" tragic Hamlet, just gave us an example of a good guy muscling up -- his thinking, not his sword arm -- and winning.

Far from mortally damaging his presidency, as critics are now piling on to claim, I'd say Mr. Obama just earned his Nobel Peace Prize -- by making novel and historic use of the threat of force to arrive at a pacific result for all humanity.

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Her book "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character" was published in 2009. Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post indicated that the August 21 chemical attack in Syria took place in Doula. The attack took place in Ghouta.