Did Obama’s ‘Red Line’ Fib Matter in the End?

The importance of credibility in international affairs is often overestimated.

Did Obama’s ‘Red Line’ Fib Matter in the End?
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

How much did U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line” mistake matter? According to the New York Times Magazine‘s Julia Ioffe, the Russians don’t seem to think it mattered much at all.

In the wake of Obama’s wide-ranging interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, much attention has focused on the president’s approach to Middle Eastern affairs, and particularly the war in Syria. The most interesting part of the interview, however, may have involved his general views on foreign policy, and especially the question of “resolve.”

Ioffe zeroes in on the question of how the president views “credibility,” and perhaps more importantly, how the Russians view Obama’s credibility. This question continues to come up, because critics of the president have consistently, and hotly, argued that Obama fatally undermined U.S. credibility when he failed to attack Syria after declaring a “red line” regarding chemical weapons use. According to critics, this has enabled aggression from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, who no longer fear the assertive use of U.S. power.

But as Ioffe points out, that idea that the “red line” in Syria mattered a great deal to Russian decision-making appears to be news to actual Russians who make decisions. Instead of carefully calibrating their foreign policy based on close analysis of Obama’s rhetoric, Russian policymakers appear to have scrutinized their own national interests and capabilities. In short, Ioffe finds no evidence whatsoever that Russia viewed Obama’s Syria decisions as a green light for invading Ukraine. This finding accords with nearly all the relevant research on the topic in the field of international relations.

But perhaps it mattered a great deal in East Asia? Some have suggested that Obama’s lack of toughness in Syria has opened the door for Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. However, no evidence yet exists for this proposition. Like the Russians, the Chinese see themselves as manifestly different than the Syrians; a great power that can take care of itself, rather than a client state that suffers what it must. And the Chinese fully understand that the Obama administration sees relations with China as happening on a fundamentally different level than relations with Syria. Indeed, in the interview (and in other places) Obama has made clear that disengagement from the Middle East is an essential precondition for rebalancing towards the Pacific.

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Diplomats lie; indeed, it’s part of their job description, not to mention their charm. What Russian diplomats say to a journalist about Russian deliberation should never serve as the final word for analysis. Yet, given that advocates of “credibility” and “resolve” have struggled to provide any evidence that Russia, China, or Iran have changed their behavior because of the decisions Obama took in Syria, it’s perhaps time for some additional doses of skepticism.