09/04/2013 12:10 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Syria: The World's Red Line and the President's Challenge

As Secretary of State John Kerry emphatically stated yesterday, the red line on Syria is the world's red line -- but where is the world?

This is not the first time the U.S. has had to lead against brutal dictators. But this may be the first time that U.S. diplomacy has so dramatically failed in rallying a public coalition of support.

A brutal dictator has flagrantly defied a world norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction and with digital speed his atrocities against woman and children flashed around the world. 189 countries are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the possession and use of chemical weapons and requires the complete elimination of these weapons of mass destruction. And there is no public outrage. There is no concerted diplomatic push back or pressure.

The president was right to declare the red line in Syria, but the "slam dunk" here was that the community of nations had already committed legally to the world norm that was being violated by a single dictator. Even President George W. Bush was able to put together a "coalition of the willing" for Iraq. Why have we failed to put together a "coalition of the already committed" against the unfolding defiance of the Assad regime regarding chemical weapons? Why have we been losing the public diplomacy war against horrific violations of a universal norm?

In an almost surreal twist, public protests have been taking place in London, Frankfurt and in cities in the United States -- not against Assad but against the U.S. China has said that a U.S. military response -- not the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons -- is against international norms, and Russia's President Putin still refuses to acknowledge the Assad's regime use of these weapons, while his foreign minister has mocked the U.S., calling its policy in the Middle East like a monkey with a grenade. Along with China, Russia has been able to block any action at the UN Security Council to hold the regime accountable, returning that body to its Cold War impotence.

No president in recent history has stood as much alone as President Obama did on Saturday in the Rose Garden as he made his announcement, isolated from the world community, including our closest ally, Britain. The president talked about many "private" expressions of "support from our friends" and belatedly asked for that support to be public. Secretary Kerry, in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referred to over 30 countries that support the US but asked to discuss specifics in a closed session since speaking publicly was difficult for some of these countries that support us. Without public support by nations that have already publicly committed themselves to outlawing these weapons of mass destruction, the message to Assad by a US response, is diluted and easily twisted into an anti-U.S. campaign.

As the president's National Security team floods the hill with a lobbying blitz over the next few days and week, there is an equally important challenge to bring the world along, publicly. Public diplomacy and public coalition support is as important a component of deterrence as is the threat and use of unilateral force. There is an important difference between leading and acting unilaterally, which seems to have been lost in the Administration's response to the Syrian crisis.

Dr. Lori E. Murray is the former Special Advisor to President Clinton on the Chemical Weapons Convention and currently holds the Distinguished Chair for National Security at the US Naval Academy sponsored by the Class of 1960.