It was a shoe thrown at former US President George W Bush in December of 2008 that would forever mark his final visit to the Middle East. While holding a press conference with his Iraqi counterpart the former President had to duck for cover as two shoes were thrown at him by a local journalist seated in the audience. The incident demonstrated once and for all that Bush and the United States had gone from liberator to oppressor in the eyes of Iraqis and Afghans and had overstayed their welcome.
Following his election in 2008, Barack Obama aimed to distance himself as much as possible from the Bush administration and its Mid-East policies. Vowing to pull the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, Obama hoped to position himself as the exact opposite of the imperialist and war mongering George W Bush. Obama therefore held his first major foreign policy address at Cairo University calling for reconciliation between the United States and the Arab world.
Now, four years after his Cairo address, The US President finds himself in a similar position to his predecessor as he is confronted with a possible military conflict in the Middle East. As the civil war in Syria spirals out of control and the death toll rises daily, many have urged the US to take a more active role in the ousting of entrenched Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In the past week, the pressure on President Obama has increased as evidence regarding the possible use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime began to surface, an occurrence that Obama previously referred to as a “game changer” and “crossing a red line.” One can only imagine the feeling of Déjà vu, or Déjà shoe, amongst White House officials as they debate whether or not to depose another Middle Eastern dictator over the issue of WMDs.
Given the reluctance of the US to commit its armed forces to another costly military campaign in the Middle East, and with a possible confrontation with Iran still lurking in the future, it is not surprising that high ranking US officials have been tap dancing around President Obama’s red line slowly distancing the US from a possible intervention.
The effort of transforming Obama’s stern red line into a Thin Red Line began with Secretary of State John Kerry who told reporters not to believe everything they read in the newspapers while commenting on an IDF intelligence officer’s assessment that chemical weapons had in-fact been used in Syria. This was followed by a statement by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel according to which chemical weapons were “likely” used but on a “small scale.” White House officials have also maintained that more evidence needs to be gathered before the use of chemical weapons can be verified. This is in line with the President’s own statements made in a press conference Tuesday in which Obama said that chemical weapons had been used in Syria but that he needed more information in order to make an informed decision.
It’s almost as if George, Jerry and the rest of the Seinfeld gang were invited to the West Wing in order to assist President Obama with his Syrian dilemma. “Small scale use?” Jerry would ask, “That’s nothing! It’s nothing! Please, everyone uses chemical gasses on a small scale. My Uncle Leo uses more chemical weapons then Assad. Serenity now!”
Even Republican leaders who believe the US should intervene in Syria are careful to not repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan. On Sunday, Republican Senator John McCain told “Meet the Press”:
The American people are weary. They don’t want boots on the ground. I don’t want boots on the ground. The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria.
The Senator did, however, call on the President to arm the Syrian rebels, use airstrikes to attack Assad’s forces and create a safe haven for refuges.
In an attempt to exhibit a more “hands on” approach towards the conflict in Syria, President Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin voicing his “concerns” over the possible use of chemical weapons. Putin might well be one of the only world leaders still able to influence Bashar Assad, yet the Russian President has refused to do so thus far in attempt to safeguard Russia’s own sphere of influence in the Middle East.
Yet the question remains, does it really matter if chemical weapons have been used in Syria or not? Over the past two years more than eighty thousand Syrians have found their death at the hands of a desperate and dangerous tyrant willing to bomb homes, schools and hospitals. Therefore, the imperative to intervene in Syria cannot be viewed as a strategic imperative but rather as a moral one.
The United States is often criticized for intervening in regional conflicts only when it suits its interests. According to this logic, the US was more than willing to aid NATO in ousting Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and lead this effort “from behind” given the need to secure the country’s vast oil reserves. Yet the United States views itself as the promoter of democracy in the world and its moral compass. As such, it can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of Bashar Assad.
If the question of Syria is treated as a moral one, then surely the time has come for the leader of the free world to lead another international coalition, and this time not from behind.
Had President Obama met with the gang from Friends instead of the Seinfelds, Joey Tribbiani would have told him that Assad is past the line. Assad is so far past the line he can’t even see it. The line is a dot to him.