The Thick Red Line: Implications of the 2013 Chemical-Weapons Crisis for Deterrence and Transatlantic Relations

November 19, 2017
Jeffrey Lewis, Bruno Tertrais

The following is an excerpt from Survival.


Whether or not American policy after the 2013 Syrian chemical-weapons attack was wise, its execution was bungled, causing unnecessary harm to the US– France relationship.

In summer 2013, the Syrian regime launched a large-scale chemical-weapons attack against its own people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, an event that left many people dead, disturbed France–US relations and reverberated around the world with potentially profound consequences for deterrence.

In the years leading up to the gassing of Ghouta, the United States, France and the United Kingdom had attempted to coordinate their policies toward the civil war that was threatening the rule of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This included declaratory statements intended to deter the use of chemical weapons. And yet the response to the 2013 attack was disorganised, reflecting the very different paths that had led US president Barack Obama and French president François Hollande to that moment.

The American president had struggled for much of his presidency to articulate a doctrine on the use of force. Obama was able to defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and then defeat Senator John McCain for the presidency, in no small part by emphasising that both candidates had supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet Obama was not a straightforward anti-war candidate – he had campaigned as a pragmatist who would wind down the unnecessary war in Iraq while seeking victory for the necessary one in Afghanistan. He used his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address to articulate his doctrine for the use of military force, one that was consistent with his views on just-war theory and the US constitution. Moreover, Obama and his closest members of staff were largely dismissive of the conventional wisdom on foreign policy, which they believed had resulted in the catastrophe of Iraq. Ben Rhodes, the president’s speechwriter and a close confidant, was famously quoted as calling the foreign-policy and nationalsecurity community ‘the Blob’.[1] The term served to dismiss the objections of this community – which included members of Obama’s own cabinet – to the president’s foreign-policy choices as sour grapes from a discredited elite.

Read the full article at Survival.

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