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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Then there was the "red line" statement. In response to a question at a White House press briefing in August 2012, Obama said the use or movement of chemical weapons would have "enormous consequences." Obama likely came to regret that remark. Assad seemed to taunt him with small-scale chemical attacks--large enough to kill dozens but not quite enough to precipitate an international crisis. Perhaps in response, Obama fine-tuned his red-line definition last April, saying it was the "systematic" use of chemical arms he would not tolerate. By June 2013, with Assad gaining a clear upper hand, the Administration said it would finally arm Syria's rebels. But credible reports that few, if any, arms have actually been delivered again cast doubt on Obama's resolve.

The apparent nerve-gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21 became the final straw. Here was a culmination of factors: evidence of a pattern of attacks and grotesque footage of victims suffering convulsions. It was a "moral obscenity," as Secretary of State John Kerry put it, that was too much for Obama to ignore, explain away or refer to a committee for study.

The timing was perfectly terrible, at a moment when Obama already appeared intent on favoring stability over American values. Seventeen phone calls from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Egyptian General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi had failed to stop the coup and bloodshed there. Now Washington is left with few vocal allies in the Arab world's most populous country. "It is pretty remarkable," says Eliot Cohen, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "that we've managed to convince everybody in Egypt we've betrayed them."

Limits of Power

Some of Obama's problems have a familiar ring. Early in his first term, Bill Clinton--who, like Obama, focused on domestic matters--also faced charges of timidity and weakness. "We simply don't have the leverage, we don't have the influence [or] the inclination to use military force," a senior State Department official complained in 1993. And much as Obama is facing pressure at home and abroad over Syria, Clinton was castigated for not intervening in the Balkan wars. "The position of leader of the free world is vacant," French President Jacques Chirac lamented in 1995.

Obama has likewise developed a strangely broad coalition of critics: humanitarians who want to stop the war in Syria; hawks who want a bolder U.S. foreign policy; democracy and human-rights advocates appalled that Obama isn't tougher on Egypt's generals. Meanwhile, U.S. allies in Europe complain that America isn't showing leadership, and a senior Arab government official tells TIME that friendly states in the region don't feel they can count on the U.S. "There's no perception that we're engaged in issues in the Middle East right now," says Christopher Hill, a veteran diplomat who served as Obama's ambassador to Iraq.

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