09/09/2013 09:37 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Red Lines, Deadlines, and Headlines

Beware of "Red Lines" generally; and specifically involving the use of military force; and particularly in the Middle East, where any "lines" are usually drawn in sand.

But before jumping on the bandwagon that so readily concludes that President Obama has only himself to blame for the current consequences of declaring a Red Line against the use of its chemical weapons by the Assad government, let's remember the history of the first Gulf War. In that case, the U.S. government under Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, had elected not to articulate -- when the opportunities to do so arose -- a Red Line in terms of Saddam Hussein's evident designs on the oil fields of Kuwait. That ambiguity just as obviously tempted our former client Saddam to unleash his tanks do his dirty business just as readily as the current armchair Kissingers suggest Obama's unambiguous Red Line allegedly tempted Assad to unleash his canisters.

In the immediate case, the theory of conventional wisdom seems to be that if no such Red Line had been been drawn, the United States would not be expected to respond to the gassing in Syria, or indeed Assad's regime might not have even tested the dare to do so. (There is another, far more conspiratorial theory circulating about the Obama Red Line; we will get to later.)

The conventional wisdom, however, conveniently ignores the International Convention banning the deployment of chemical weapons to which the U.S. is a party. Even Congress has enough institutional memory to recall that it voted in favor of the Convention in bipartisan fashion. Since when are enactments of Congress not a Red Line? Well maybe since the last Congress decided that America's "Full Faith and Credit" Red Line as to paying our debts incurred pursuant to Acts of Congress might no longer mean what it says. No doubt the thought of the renewed debt ceiling debate coming this very month may have crossed President Obama's mind when he reminded Congress that the United States ought to continue to keep its commitments.

The other conventional wisdom that has emerged in recent days about the Syrian chemical weapons issue is that going to Congress is a mistake because (i) it shows Obama lacks the courage of his own recent convictions and can't be counted on to act "on time" and/or (ii) even if Congress approves it will do so too late to have any effect because the Assad forces will have moved their chemical weapons delivery assets to some sort of safe places (schools, hospitals, apartment houses) to preclude effective surgical attacks. This theory that the deadline for effective response is already past at the very least betrays an absolute and surprising distrust of the capabilities of the U.S. military, which has made clear that no such delay will adversely affect our attack strategy or tactics.

With apologies to Muhammed Ali - our Syrian opponent can run but he can't hide. It's indeed ironic that some of those most distrusting of the quality of current U.S. military intelligence capability are among those who have expressed the most alarm about U.S. national defense surveillance programs they view as such an unacceptable invasion of privacy. Can't have it both ways - if our surveillance capabilities are so inept, useless and ineffective, what's there to worry about?

More importantly, the notion of an arbitrary (and in all candor, media induced) deadline precluding Congressional debate -- which all House and Senate leaders have made clear will proceed expeditiously -- suggests that considering the use of military force at least arguably in our national interest but obviously not in response to an imminent threat to national security is to be exempted from our normal democratic processes.

That being said, we still face the potential of a filibuster being considered by Senator Rand Paul, one those most opposed to use of force in this instance. One suspects even the "anti-Obama in all things" Tea Party adherents will view such a delaying tactic as problematic. However much our war weary public would rather not again cross the line to military action in the Middle East, notwithstanding proof beyond reasonable doubt of Assad's responsibility for this atrocity, they will not stand for such an act of Congressional self-abuse in this case. Even Senator Paul may ultimately take a pass on this opportunity to make headlines.

Speaking of headlines, the intervening time between debate and vote is bringing a lot attention-getting conspiracy theories in the blogosphere and on talk radio. And where there are looney-tune notions, especially regarding Obama's alleged Anti-American perfidy, there we will find Rush Limbaugh, intoning that we "have to be careful" about adopting reports without identified sources, and then proceeding to give 50,00 watt voice to just such theories.

The latest of these is the notion, published by a former government consultant named Jossef Badansky, that alleges that the white house has conspired with Al Qaeda forces in Syria to conduct the poison gas attack on the Damascus suburb and then attempt to frame Assad to create a pretext for Obama to take America to intervene in the civil war on behalf of the Muslim radical terrorists. According to Limbaugh, this theory has enough credibility to warrant it being "put on the table." This is kind of stretch by Limbaugh, who heretofore has claimed that Obama is afraid to act at all and wants Congress to bail him out of his self-inflicted Red Line mistake and policy fecklessness. Rush, of course, has never let having it both ways stop him from trying to do just that.

Limbaugh also has some strange company in joining the ranks of those lobbying the Congress to reject Obama's authorization request: in addition to the usual suspects like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party folks, neo-isolationists like Rand Paul - and maybe Paul Ryan with his eye on saving the military sequester - we have the likes of Congressman Charlie Rangel, Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communist leadership - not Rush's usual ditto-heads!

Yes, Red Lines are dangerous things and should be considered with care: but so are Deadlines and so are Headlines.


By Terry Connelly, Dean Emeritus, Ageno School of Business, Golden Gate University

Terry Connelly is an economic expert and dean emeritus of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Terry holds a law degree from NYU School of Law and his professional history includes positions with Ernst & Young Australia, the Queensland University of Technology Graduate School of Business, New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, global chief of staff at Salomon Brothers investment banking firm and global head of investment banking at Cowen & Company. In conjunction with Golden Gate University President Dan Angel, Terry co-authored Riptide: The New Normal In Higher Education.