Across The Red Line

Evidence of a brutal chemical attack in Syria poses a defining test to the U.S.'s reputation and to Barack Obama's foreign policy vision

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TIME Photo-illustration. Obama: Photograph by Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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The world watched to see whether Obama would flinch from the role of global cop. He had already allowed multiple chemical-weapons attacks to come and go without any clear consequences beyond modest U.S. support for a disorderly rebel movement.

And the Syria crisis was not the only one testing the limits of Obama's foreign policy approach or the power of his country. Iran is moving forward with its nuclear program in defiance of Obama's similar warnings of military retribution. In Egypt a military regime backed by U.S. taxpayers continues to ignore his calls for peace after it killed more than 600 protesters. Afghanistan's shaky government warily prepares for the prospect of civil war when U.S. troops finally leave next year, while terrorist bombs continue to torment the unstable cities of Iraq. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is alive and well in places like Yemen and North Africa, even if Osama bin Laden is not. At home, the perception of his foreign policy performance has steadily declined: only about 40% of Americans now approve.

Syria's defiance, if left unpunished, risked a domino effect of further defiant actions around the globe, the White House concluded. "We have our reputation on the line," explains Brent Scowcroft, the onetime National Security Adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford who has informally advised Obama.

It was exactly the place Obama hoped to avoid in those early optimistic speeches around the world: boxed in by the madness of the Middle East, forced into military action by Syria's dictator, a former ophthalmologist most Americans would be hard-pressed to name.

The Road to Damascus

How did it come to this? some of it is bad luck--although that often comes with the job: Bush had 9/11, Clinton had the Balkans, Carter had the Iranian hostages. But Obama has made missteps as well. The art of foreign policy is preventing no-win decisions from ever presenting themselves. And in retrospect, Obama's caution may have worked against him.

From the start, he kept a wary distance from the Arab Spring. The first incarnation, though it wasn't obvious at the time, was the reform movement that filled the streets of Tehran in June 2009. Calling for regime change might have had a Bushian ring, and the White House feared making statements that would allow Iran's government to make the protests look like a foreign plot. Obama wound up saying only that the U.S. would "bear witness to the extraordinary events" taking place there, with little support for the protests. In hindsight, his staff found fault with the timidity. "I think we were too cautious," says Dennis Ross, the point man for Iran policy in Obama's first term. "I regret it." It was, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come.

As protests ignited across the Middle East two years later, Obama continued to tread lightly--choosing stability over the risk of the unknown and refusing to lay out any unified theory of U.S. reaction. "Trying to calibrate how we need the U.S. to involve itself without overextending has been a central foreign policy question of this presidency," says Ben Rhodes, Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser.

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