Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I finally understand why critiques of President Obama's red line in Syria are wrong

I just had an "aha!" moment. Aren't those fun?

It comes because I finally understand why so many people critique President Obama about folding on the "red line" he drew on chemical weapons in Syria. I've always thought his handling of that situation was a total success - he drew the red line and when Assad chose to use chemical weapons, he threatened military strikes. That threat resulted in Putin pressuring Assad to give them up. That's how its supposed to work, isn't it?

Not according to Peter Baker.
Other statements that have come under fire lately include Mr. Obama’s comment setting a “red line” if the government of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people, which he eventually did. Mr. Obama vowed to retaliate but instead accepted a deal to remove and destroy Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons.
Baker saw President Obama's threats about crossing the red line of using chemical weapons as a threat to "retaliate" rather than a means to get rid of them.

This is actually a difference that comes up over and over again with the President's critics. Its just that it usually surfaces in the arena of criminal justice rather than foreign policy. Its all about a disagreement over the end game and the meaning of "justice."

On everything from this situation to the decisions not to prosecute Wall Street or Bush/Cheney, this administration has always prioritized reform (or rehabilitation) as the end goal. From my experience of discussing these issues with others, its been clear to me that a lot of people tend to equate "punishment" with "justice." And so Baker finds President Obama's reaction in Syria to be insufficient to his rhetoric because he didn't "retaliate" (read: punish) Assad.

I tend to agree with the Obama administration on this. Punishment and retaliation are tools that can be used to interrupt criminal behavior as well as possible motivations for rehabilitation. They have mild effects as deterrents because of the fact that crime is more influenced by emotion and one's cultural milieu than a rational choice. Efforts to change that milieu (i.e., getting rid of Assad's chemical weapons) are the most powerful way of preventing its reoccurrence. That's the kind of reform this administration has always been focused on.

In the end, Baker (and others who critique this) are still wrong. But at least now I understand WHY they're wrong.


  1. Great article! I would love to read some research about changing the milieu vs. punishment. Do you have any links?

    1. This article focuses more on the difference between surety of punishment vs severity of punishment, but it gets at some of what I'm talking about.

  2. I think you have hit on a key point here. Justice != Punishment. In far to many people's eyes (both left and right) the only true form of justice is punishment. But punishment is only justice if it actually (1) compensates for the bad behavior and (2) prevents it from happening again in the future. If all it does is satisfy the revenge fantasies of those who have suffered an injustice then all it does is create the groundwork for another cycle of revenge and calls for punishment.

    I wanted to see bankers take the perp walk as much as anyone. I think for-profit health insurance is a fundamentally perverse model for delivery of healthcare. But when given the choice between putting a better system in place or seeing the bad guys get their just reward then I'm all for reform (which isn't to say I didn't cheer when we got bin Laden).

  3. Great commentary, Nancy. Like it lots. Can you imagine what would happen if Assad still had all those weapons and the Islamic State got their hands on them? Yep, I like this idea that Justice ≠ Punishment.