Editor's Note: Nicholas Burns is GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist. He writes a bimonthly column on the international issues that shape our world.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — President Obama is right to respond cautiously to accumulating evidence that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. After all, if we learned one thing from the Iraq War, it is that the United States must be absolutely certain of the facts before we launch military action against another Muslim country.
Our failure to meet this standard in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq was one of the most significant in our history. Surely, we should give the Obama team space and time to determine incontrovertible facts before we act, as the president suggested we should in his Tuesday press conference.
One of the president’s defining leadership characteristics is patience. When he famously deliberated for months about whether to add troops in Afghanistan back in 2009, critics, mostly Republican, accused him of dithering and indecisiveness. But it felt right to me that, after having been enmeshed in two big land wars in the decade after Sept. 11, the president should ask lots of questions and investigate every angle and assumption before acting.
One big lesson I learned in government is that sometimes the decisions you don’t rush or even don’t make turn out to be the best judgment calls in the murky, complex arena of global politics.
That innate caution has often served Barack Obama well on the global stage. But the problem with the Syrian civil war is that it will, sooner or later, demand much greater American activism and leadership. That realization is not lost on the White House.
A statement Tuesday by the National Security Council indicated that the president “directed his national security team to identify additional measures” to support the Syrian opposition.
Obama has tried mightily for two years to keep the United States out of Syria. But he has also warned Assad repeatedly not to use chemical weapons against opposition rebels and civilians, or else. If you draw a line in the sand, especially in the turbulent and passionate Arab world, and dare someone not to cross it, you had better back up the threat when he does.
This is the heart of the dilemma Obama now faces on Syria. If the evidence says Assad used chemical weapons, Obama cannot afford to let him get away with it. The risk is just too great in a region where others might resort to their use if Assad goes unpunished. At some point, the president will need to act, by persuasion or force, to stop the Syrian government.
First, use of chemical weapons is outlawed under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Saddam Hussein’s employment of chemical weapons against the Kurds was one of the principal crimes that turned the world against him in the 1980s and '90s. The United States, Israel, Britain and France all believe the Syrian government likely attacked civilians and rebel groups with sarin gas. Once all the facts have been substantiated, the United States has no choice but to insist on a zero-tolerance attitude toward chemical weapons
Second, American credibility is at stake. If Assad’s crime goes unchecked, you can be sure that at least three countries will draw the necessary conclusions about American reliability and strength — Iran, Israel and North Korea. Whether or not Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, moves forward with his nuclear weapons program in 2013 may well depend on whether he calculates he can get away with it. He may be more inclined to proceed if he perceives America is a paper tiger. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also watching closely for signs that Obama’s pledge that he has Israel’s back on Iran is still believable. And North Korea will likely continue creating mayhem in Asia if it believes there are no consequences to its own illegal actions.
Third, the only country that can assemble an effective international coalition to push Assad out of power is the United States. All the options the United States faces in Syria are bad. No one believes the answer is an American military invasion of Syria along the lines of Iraq or Kosovo. But doing nothing may be the worst option of all. The war is threatening to spread to fragile Lebanon, a weakened Jordan and an increasingly violent and unstable Iraq. With 80,000 Syrians dead, and well more than one million refugees having fled the country, the humanitarian crisis will worsen significantly this year. And because Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have already intervened to prop up the Syrian regime, the danger of a wider, regional war is not out of the question.
With this in mind, the United States, with all of its considerable power and influence, is going to find it increasingly difficult to sit on the sidelines. Obama will need to think through the merits of options from the easy and sensible to those that will be much more difficult.
At a minimum, the president can use his bully pulpit to greater effect against Assad. The United States can take on a more public leadership role on humanitarian aid to the millions of victims. The United States could also move to repudiate Syria for chemical weapons use in the UN Security Council if it can manage to get the Russians and Chinese on board or in the General Assembly if it cannot. President Obama could warn Assad that any further use would be met with a decisive military response. Combined, those measures would attract the support of many of our allies and friends.
But the administration has been pressured, as the war has intensified, to consider even stronger actions. Indeed, the New York Times reported Wednesday that the White House now will look again at the difficult issue of whether to send arms to the Syrian opposition forces. If the president decided to move ahead with arms transfers, it could help to degrade Assad’s military strength.
Another option is to launch limited air strikes against key regime military targets to make Assad pay for using chemical weapons. In addition, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and NATO allies may eventually have to consider the merits of a no-flight zone to take away Assad’s singular advantage in air power. Without such a central, strong, integrating American leadership role, the war will likely go on and Syria will risk fracturing permanently along sectarian lines after Assad falls.
America’s global leadership role requires us to meet the most dangerous and difficult challenges. A Syrian dictator using chemical weapons is one. The United States can no longer afford to stay on the sidelines. The stakes and consequences are just too high to do otherwise.
Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.