WASHINGTON - It seemed for a moment this week that we might soon be at war with Syria.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters that, according to new intelligence analyses, Syrian president Bashar Assad has likely used chemical weapons, specifically sarin, against rebel forces.
At least five times in the last eight months, President Barack Obama has declared that any such use of chemical weapons would cross "a red line." These are fighting words, or very close to them. If a president describes a possible action as "crossing a red line," then does nothing about it, no future declaration of red lines - no threat to respond with force to some horrible action - will be taken seriously by anyone, friend or foe.
Obama has said as much while issuing his "red line" warnings against Syria's use of chemical weapons. "There would be enormous consequences," he said on one occasion. It would mark "a game-changer from our perspective," he said on another. It would be "totally unacceptable" and Assad would be "held accountable," he warned on still another.
So, with Hagel's statement this week, has the red line been crossed? And what is Obama going to do about it?
The White House response this afternoon: Whoa, wait, not so fast. Hagel's remarks, while laced in stern tones, noted that U.S. intelligence agencies had made this assessment "with varying degrees of confidence." A letter written by the White House congressional liaison, to various senators, re-emphasized this caveat.
A senior White House official, speaking on a conference call with reporters, went further. He allowed that there is "physiological evidence" of sarin in Syria (whether on people or soil, he didn't say), but before declaring that the red line has been crossed, the president needs more facts, especially concerning the "chain of custody" - that is, who released the sarin and did they do so deliberately. It's likely that Assad or some element of his regime is responsible, the official allowed, but "likely" isn't enough. Given the seriousness of the issue, and the "recent history" of mistaken intelligence assessments (a clear reference to the false WMD alarms that justified the invasion of Iraq), this president needs more. He needs conclusions reached "with certainty."
It doesn't take a war hawk to wonder if this standard might be raising the bar too high. In the annals of intelligence analysis, very few assessments have ever been offered with certainty. And the notion of determining the "chain of custody" with certainty - some proof that the traces of sarin found in the blood samples of Syrian rebels (as intelligence reports now indicate) definitely came from weapons fired by forces loyal to President Assad - is also a bit of a stretch.
At the same time, it's hard to blame Obama for demanding a high bar of evidence. Stating that Assad has used chemical weapons would mean that he did cross that dread red line, and that would mean Obama now has to do something about it. It wouldn't necessarily mean that he has to send in the Marines, but he probably would have to take some action that could easily escalate to sending in the Marines or special forces, jet fighters, cruise missiles, or armed drones - that could very quickly mean war.
One thing that Obama has made very clear in his approach to war and peace: He abhors the prospect of uncontrolled escalation. (In this sense, he bears similarities to John F. Kennedy.) And, as he no doubt knows well, Syria isn't Libya, where an embattled, isolated dictator was hanging on to power only with the aid of foreign mercenaries. Assad has the Syrian army fighting for him (minus a few high-ranking defectors); he has the support of several factions of the Syrian population, including Christians, who fear what might happen if the Muslim rebels - some of them radical Islamists - take power; and he receives aid, to varying degrees, from Russia, China and Iran. Toppling Assad might mark not the end but merely a new chapter of a bourgeoning civil war.
As initial steps, Obama might respond to the line-crossing in ways that seem to restrict his commitment. He could supply the rebels with arms, or set up a no-fly zone, or bomb certain "high-value targets" of the regime, or any number of other possibilities. No doubt the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared a list of options, perhaps with boxes next to each, for the president to check "Yes" or "No."
But any president who's apprehensive about escalation - and any president who's read the history of the Vietnam War, as Obama has - must be concerned that one step inexorably leads to another. What happens after the first step? What happens when the Syrians escalate in response? Who cleans up the mess after it's over? How much will this venture, however well intentioned, cost in lives and dollars? Obama probably also knows that the senators urging him to take military action will shirk responsibility, and blame him for all the troubles, if Syria collapses or goes up in flames in the aftermath.
And yet, a red line is hard to ignore; that's why it's painted red. If someone crosses it after being warned not to, the one who issued the warning can't just turn away. This is why leaders are reluctant to draw red lines; doing so forces them to take action, and sometimes it's not so clear ahead of time whether action (or what sort of action) is warranted. But in the case of Syria using chemical weapons, the red line dilemma isn't simply a matter of "perceptions" or upholding American "credibility." It's also a truly terrible step; it violates international law and every code of decency and security. If Assad is culpable (by reasonably high standards of evidence), it's a bad idea on several counts to let him or his regime go unchallenged.
It may be that Obama is buying time - time to settle on a course of action, to coordinate it with allies in the region (Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf states are crucial), to check whether the current evidence might alter the attitude of the Russians or Chinese (isolating Assad from his allies would make any action less risky, and a U.N. resolution would be useful, too), perhaps to probe and prod internal dissension within Assad's entourage (a coup could preempt a world of pain). Maybe spies and diplomats are exploring all these possibilities. That would be good.
Obama's aversion to escalation is fully justified. But so were his warnings against Syria's use of chemical weapons. These two instincts - the drawing of a red line and the reluctance to punish its crossing - are on the verge of clashing. He'll have to do something, but he shouldn't be rushed into doing it.
Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."