President Obama’s Bush Moment?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

President Obama has really put himself in a bind with this red line on Syria. As his call to action escalates following President Bashar al-Assad’s probable use of chemical weapons against thousands of his own people last week, it seems likely that the U.S. will make targeted strikes against the Syrian regime. The only question is who will join us.

This week, the President repeatedly referred to Syria’s breach of an international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, but his administration has yet to provide a sufficiently detailed justification and compelling outcome in support of intervention. For instance, in his speech to the American public on Friday, did Secretary of State John Kerry describe the graphic images of slaughter to garner support for a humanitarian intervention to protect civilians? Or did he speak to our worst fears to highlight the security risks to America and its allies to justify a preemptive strike in the name of self-defense? How will a strike against Assad, however narrow, serve the American interests Obama continues to incorporate into his rhetoric?

Since well before Assad’s use of chemical weapons, many experts have called for humanitarian intervention as a means to protect civilians. Some advocate a Clinton era NATO bombing campaign similar to the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which stopped Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from committing additional atrocity crimes against Kosovar Albanians. Yet, on Friday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO has no plans to act.

Even before this impasse with NATO, the administration has signaled that protecting America’s interests may justify intervention. In recent days, the President and Secretary of State Kerry have echoed these sentiments by noting that the situation in Syria matters to the security of America and its allies. This rhetoric sounds dangerously similar to the flawed Bush Doctrine, which condoned preemptive war as a means of self-defense.

This rationale would also explain why the President decided to draw a red line at chemical and biological weapons instead of calling for humanitarian intervention much earlier. After all, Syria’s civil war has raged on for over two years right under our watch, with some 100,000 deaths and 2 million refugees. One only need read the news over the past two years – such as Luke Mogelson’s heart-breaking and apocalyptic account in the New Yorker of a day in the life of Aleppo – to ascertain the sheer terror that Syrians have been living under since long before the chemical attacks.

Regrettably, Obama is implicitly drawing a boundary on acceptable instruments of mass atrocity crimes instead of calling for accountability for these crimes, which are also forbidden under international law, regardless of the method. The President could have sounded the clarion call well before the conscience-shocking events of last week based on the international community’s responsibility to protect (R2P), an emerging legal norm endorsed by the UN General Assembly. Though controversial due to its infancy, R2P has been a buzzword in international relations circles throughout Syria’s civil war.

The contours of the responsibility to protect are still developing in practice. As pointed out by legal scholars long before Assad resorted to chemical weapons, however, Obama had the opportunity last August when he announced the red line to present the case for intervention on a narrow basis to protect civilians. The President and the international community had a toolkit in R2P that could have been debated and presented to the public as a means to prevent the seemingly inevitable use of chemical weapons.

In fact, R2P helped justify NATO’s intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Granted, the intervention in Libya had support from the UN Security Council. Even in the absence of such support, the NATO bombing in Kosovo could have provided a basis – albeit one widely labeled as unlawful but legitimate – to circumvent a stalemate at the UN Security Council.

Instead, Obama kicked the can and tied his own hands. He may have been paralyzed by Bush’s debilitating legacy of intervention. Yet, by invoking America’s security interests and drawing a line at chemical and biological weapons – or weapons of mass destruction in the parlance of the Bush administration – President Obama set the United States on course for preemptive strikes in the name of national security.

In essence, his stance is not even about Syria’s civil war or widespread atrocity crimes. As the President told PBS on Wednesday, those weapons could get into the wrong hands — the implication being that Assad’s hands might be okay if they were contained. The perpetual irony is that jihadists and enemies of the United States who might be aided on the battlefield by our efforts may be some of the very hands that the administration fears. This, coupled with Obama’s increasingly unilateral stance, and his demand as early as August 2011 that Assad step down, smells like vintage Bush Doctrine.

And so, President Obama faces another quagmire — perhaps not an Iraq occupation style one, but entanglement in an increasingly sectarian and complicated hornet’s nest that, at the moment, has nothing to do with meddling by the United States. Regrettably, there might have been greater hopes for regional stability if the United States had rallied an international coalition much earlier to stop ongoing, widespread slaughter. Now the lid has blown, and it seems a little too late in the game for a face-saving measure. This is particularly true without the support of our greatest ally, Britain, and dwindling hopes for a NATO-led intervention.

Annie Castellani is an attorney and writer. Previously, she was a fellow at the Public International Law & Policy Group, a global pro bono law firm focused on democratic transitions. Her views are independent from those of the organizations with which she is affiliated.