Red Line Blues: North Korea, Iran and Syria

From the Levant and the Persian Gulf to the Korean peninsula, events in recent weeks have offered a clinic in the difficulty of enforcing red lines on rogue regimes and their weapons of mass destruction, as well as how US credibility suffers when presidents continue to stake out red lines they ultimately are not prepared to act on.

The past month has served up a triple dose of proliferation trouble. Despite two decades of Washington's declarations regarding the intolerable nature of North Korea's strategic weapons and its readiness to take military action to counter them, the Kim clan in Pyongyang is once again poised to thumb its nose at the Americans by staging long-range rocket launches and a nuclear weapons test.

For the Obama White House, the Korean crisis is a lot like Groundhog Day, the classic 1993 movie about a man trapped in a time loop. The administration entered office by adopting a conciliatory approach toward hostile states like North Korea – recall the president's line in his first inaugural address about how "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Pyongyang's response came in short order: a long-range missile launch in April 2009, followed by a nuclear test the next month. And just to make sure the point registered, it shot off a barrage of short-range missiles on July 4, 2009, a date that surely was no coincidence.

Fast forward some four years, when North Korea greeted Obama's re-election by launching a long-range missile (December 2012) and then staging another nuclear test (February 2013) on the eve of his State of the Union address. It should be noted that there is probably a considerable element of propaganda in Kim Jong-un's bellicosity. It took the Americans, Russians, Chinese and others years and multiple tests to fit a bomb onto a ballistic missile. North Korea has had one successful missile launch and several failures, and has failed at least once in attempting to set off a nuclear device as well.

The news from the Middle East, where the Obama administration has drawn its own proliferation red lines, is scarcely better. The president regularly insists that he is prepared, if necessary, to resort to military means to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program. "I don't bluff" is how he memorably phrased his threat a year ago, and Vice President Joe Biden recently reiterated this line. Yet Tehran seems to put little stock in the administration's words. Just as Mr. Biden was speaking, the Iranian regime announced that it was building 3,000 advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges.

And earlier this month, as international negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions ended in impasse, Tehran trumpeted an expansion of its uranium production. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that the country is blocking access to a military facility the IAEA suspects was used to test a triggering mechanism for an atomic bomb and that it may be continuing work on nuclear weapons. And to top things off, a panel of high-level experts, including several former administration officials, has just released a very critical assessment of the Obama approach toward Tehran.

Completing the cycle of bad news is the mounting evidence that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria used sarin, a lethal nerve gas, on a limited scale on several recent occasions during the country's increasingly volatile civil war. After downplaying earlier reports, including by the US consulate general in Istanbul, the White House reluctantly gave credence to this evidence late last week, an acknowledgement that is in line with the positions reached by a number of other allied governments, including Britain, France and Qatar, as well as senior Israeli military officials.

The White House emphasizes that more analysis is necessary in order to reach a definitive judgment and has called upon the United Nations to investigate the suspected incidents. Yet the finding brings Mr. Obama closer to a significant moment of truth given how over the past eight months he has issued at least five separate warnings to the regime in Damascus against using chemical weapons. Just last month, during his trip to Israel, he declared that: "I've made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable."

The events of the last month or so highlight two interrelated lessons. The first is how exceedingly difficult it is for Washington to stop a rogue regime determined to develop nuclear weapon capabilities, especially if it located in a strategic part of the world, has powerful patrons, and is able to inflict retribution on important US interests in the region. North Korea and Iran are prime examples here.

The second lesson follows from this: Washington should avoid setting out proliferation red lines it is not prepared to enforce if push comes to shove. Far from demonstrating resolve, bluffs usually backfire by sending unmistakable messages of weakness. The Iranian and Syrian cases are the exemplars here. Although the Obama administration has issued a torrent of warnings, they have not been very credible given the president's widely-broadcast determination to wind down US military involvement in the Greater Middle East as well as his rhetoric about the overriding urgency of the domestic agenda. The huge disconnect has not gone unnoticed in Tehran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an interview last September dismissed Washington's threats by noting America's war-weariness.

The administration's evident reluctance to entangle itself militarily in the region – and in a country where the insurgency is increasingly thought to be controlled by Islamic jihadis – is reflected in its minimalist approach toward the Syrian civil war over the past year. And it is the basis for the so far tepid response to the growing signs of Syrian chemical use. Mr. Obama counsels the need to tread "prudently" and "deliberately," though the course he articulated last week appears more like temporization.

Wired magazine reports, for instance, that the US intelligence community believes it already has strong corroboration, while Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, states emphatically that "It is clear that ‘red lines' have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger scale use."

Moreover, relying on the UN to render a definitive judgment is hardly a signal of resoluteness, especially since Damascus has stymied UN investigators and the UN Security Council is very unlikely to take strong action given Russian and Chinese diplomatic backing of the al-Assad regime. Indeed, Moscow's support for Damascus is so close that Russian technicians even man some of its air defense systems. In a recent interview, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov disclaimed any intention of ever following America's lead in the Middle East.

Climbdowns from high-profile declarations do not escape notice in international politics. Secretary of State John Kerry recently pushed back against those who argue that Obama is bluffing vis-a-vis Iran by pointing to the unequivocal nature of the president's statements. But his threats on Syria have also been definitive and were Washington to avoid making good on them, officials in Tehran will have even more reason to discount the tough talk Obama regularly directs their way.

Nor would the message be lost on others in the Middle East. The administration has spent plenty of energy trying to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the seriousness of its warnings toward Iran. But Haaretz reports that: "Israel is closely following US activity regarding Syria after the regime there crossed a red line. If the US fails to act, it will be hard for Israel to believe that it will follow through on its commitment to thwart Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Taking action in Syria is much simpler and less dangerous than preventing Iran from going nuclear."

There will also be broader regional ramifications. One expert who is sympathetic to the administration's predicament on Syria nonetheless notes that: "US street cred is already at all time low in the Middle East. We don't need what remains of US credibility to be lost in the gap between the president's words and his deeds."

Obama now seems trapped by his own rhetoric. Whether he likes it or not, a defining moment for his foreign policy legacy is fast approaching.

(David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm based in Los Angeles. He blogs on US foreign policy at Monsters Abroad and can be reached via Twitter @davidjkarl.)