Jeffrey LewisDeterring Syria’s CW

A minor miracle the other day. U.S. President Barack Obama drew a “red line” concerning Syria’s chemical weapons.

Everyone understood what he meant. No one thought he was threatening to nuke Syria.


In case you missed it, President Obama responded to growing concern that the Syrian government might use chemical weapons by drawing a “red line” for the Assad regime, warning that use of chemical weapons might result in US military intervention in Syria’s civil war:

Q    Mr. President, could you update us on your latest thinking of where you think things are in Syria, and in particular, whether you envision using U.S. military, if simply for nothing else, the safe keeping of the chemical weapons, and if you’re confident that the chemical weapons are safe?

THE PRESIDENT: …I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation.  But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical.  That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel.  It concerns us.  We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.
Q    So you’re confident it’s somehow under — it’s safe?
THE PRESIDENT:  In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident.  What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully.  We have put together a range of contingency plans.  We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemicalweapons.  That would change my calculations significantly.
All right, thank you, everybody.

The most interesting thing about the press reaction is that, although Obama did not specifically state that he was referring only to conventional military operations, no one thought Obama might be threatening to use nuclear weapons against Syria.

OK, I know, no one has suggested using nuclear weapons against Syria.  And actually using nuclear weapons in the midst of a civil war would be totally crazy.  “Ah, but,” I say.  For many years, U.S. officials would simply not rule out the use of nuclear weapons in specific scenarios, no matter how fanciful or ridiculous. The result was high comedy!

The classic case involved then-Secretary of Defense Bill Perry in 1996. Perry answered a general question about whether the United States would use force to prevent Libya from completing what appeared to be a chemical weapons factory near Tarhuna.  Perry trotted out the old chestnut of “I wouldn’t rule anything out or anything in” and –shock! — reporters assumed he meant nuclear weapons.  I am pretty sure Perry didn’t intend to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against Libya, but once he was misunderstood the policy of not-ruling-things-in-or-out played havoc.  Eventually, Perry offered a clarification that amounted to “not that we would, but we might,” a statement that the Defense Department saw fit to reprint in the 1997 edition of Proliferation: Threat and Response. (I am being unkind, but you go ahead and parse his statement.) The Clinton Administration considered the issue closed, but, as you can see from this transcript, they never figured out how to answer the question cleanly.

The problem kept popping up.  George W. Bush answered a routine question about Iran by saying all options were on the table, prompting UK officials to express discomfort with the idea of using nuclear weapons against Iran. And in 2007, Hilary Clinton attempted to paint then-Senator Barack Obama as a foreign policy neophyte for taking nuclear weapons off the table for scenarios involving Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Afghanistan! Pakistan!) These were all stupid kerfuffles, but stupid kerfuffles were a recurring feature of US declaratory policy as US policy-makers tried to pretend that nuclear weapons played a role in deterring lesser threats, like chemical weapons.

The problem was the policy of “calculated ambiguity” — a term first used retrospectively by James Baker in his 1995 memoir, and which quickly found popularity within a Clinton Administration seeking to ease ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Whatever the short-term political merits, “calculated ambiguity” was not, as I often point out, an instance of ambiguity, at least not in the sense of being open to more than one interpretation.   The policy compromised contradictory statements that were lawyered into word salad.  The policy would rightly have been called “calculated incoherence” if anyone in Washington had a sense of humor about such things. This policy transformed mundane remarks into nuclear threats, before self-destructing into incoherence as officials and spokespersons attempted to clarify.  If you ever saw Eddie Izzard joke about Englebert Humperdinck being dead, it was sort of like that.  (See the bit that starts around 1:40.)

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review largley resolved this problem.  Although “calculated ambiguity” remains a feature of how US officials talk about nuclear weapons, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review finally made clear that the United States would not use nuclear weapons in response to attacks with chemical and biological weapons.  (Hold that thought!)  Instead, the US promised an overwhelming conventional response, as Scott Sagan had long proposed.

It is the threat of an overwhelming conventional response that Obama is now invoking. Whether the prospect of conventional US military operations will deter Assad from using chemical weapons or not is almost beside the point.  It is surprising enough that Obama was able to make this threat without having to endure a distracting discussion about whether or not he had just threatened to use nuclear weapons.  It is also noteworthy that no one is lamenting that Obama could not strengthen deterrence by alluding to the possible use of nuclear weapons.

There is, however, a twist.  I said the United States would not use nuclear weapons in response to attacks with chemical and biological weapons.  Well, that’s not quite accurate.  What the Nuclear Posture Review said is that the United States “is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing ‘negative security assurance’ by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”  In other words, not Syria! The pledge is only good for non-nuclear weapons states in good-standing with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.  If you read the fine print, the US still retains the right to nuke the bejesus out of Damascus in response to a use of chemical weapons.  Not that we would, but we might.

Yet, no one is jumping to that conclusion — which is a good thing.   Nuclear weapons are, rhetorically speaking, off the table in Syria with no harm to deterrence and, to the contrary, a much sharper point  on the threat of conventional military options to respond to any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Apparently, when it comes to declaratory policy, people listen to the music, not the words.   That’s a lesson in itself for our future discussions about declaratory policy.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    IMO, the slightly sticky point comes in with biological weapons and the famously unclear definition of WMD. Nukes are WMD. Chemicals, though nasty, aren’t WMD in any meaningful sense. Biologicals — well that’s not entirely clear. Most aren’t, but there are plausible suggestions that some might be, at least possibly. There follow questions relating to proportionate deterrence and proportionate retaliation.

    But what I really want to know, referring to the picture, does anybody in such a meeting ever pick up an apple from the bowl and eat it? Do they all crunch an apple at the end of the meeting as a bonding gesture?

    • Jon (History)

      It’s August, I think those are peaches.

    • anon (History)

      They look like apples….

    • Scott Monje (History)

      I think we need an investigative commission.

    • David Clark (History)

      I’ve done some research on the interwebs, and can identify these as… apples. Apparently it’s part of Obama’s tour rider – apples are an ‘ever-present’ fixture on that coffee table.

      There was a big to-do about the Oval Office remodeling a few years ago, and believe it or not, the whole apple thing got covered in some detail. Google apples+Obama+Oval Office for all the slow-news-day details.

    • krepon (History)

      I’m all for local & sustainable. There’s an apple orchard up the street. But Fuji apples (New Zealand), kept in the fridge are the best.

  2. Stephen Young (History)

    So, Jeffrey, you are saying that “a range of contingency plans” is to be praised simply because Obama didn’t say “all options are on the table”? It seems a little thin to me, but I certainly like your reading even if I wish it were more definitive.

    Allen, your point raises the other exception (on top of the exception Jeffrey closes with): the 2010 NPR reserves the right to “make an adjustment” should the “catastrophic potential” of bio weapons come into play.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      No, I am not. You are missing the point entirely.

      Neither Perry nor Obama was threatening to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical weapons threat. In one case — Perry in 1996 with Libya — the “rule out/rule in” formula produced a widespread belief that a nuclear threat had been issued. In another case — Obama in 2012 with Syria — a similar phrase produced no such confusion or hand-wringing. This is despite that the fact that, strictly speaking, the 2010 NPR nominally left “calculated ambiguity” in place for Syria and both phrases are, in fact, ambiguous.

      The answer, as I speculate, is that the “clean” negative security assurance has fundamentally changed how reporters and others interpret such ambiguous statements. In my view, the “clean” negative security assurance is a good thing not merely because it reassures some countries but because it has put an end to the “stupid kerfuffles” that have plagued US declaratory policy since Perry was SECDEF. I don’t think we should make inadvertent nuclear threats. I would also argue that the “clean” negative security assurance strengthens deterrence by emphasizing the most credible option — conventional military force.

      Obama’s drawing of a red line was nice and clean, with no distracting discussion of nuclear options that are not credible. What an improvement!

      There is a further lesson for declaratory policy. Categorical assurances seem like they should provide the most assurance, but it may be that slightly more nuanced formulation can do better as long as it is “deeply” credible. (As I have written elsewhere, categorical assurances can be made to look ridiculous.) The implication is that “no first use” might be less effective than a slightly less categorical, but more intuitive, formulation like Michael Quinlan’s approach — “We do not foresee first use. We do not expect it. We will do everything in our power by our posture to sustain our expectation. But we cannot guarantee” it.

      As for the biological weapons issue, I think the 2010 NPR handles that perfectly. (I gather that the final formula was a compromise, which normally means no one is happy, but I rather like it.) The formula is that, for the foreseeable future, biological weapons are not destructive enough to warrant a nuclear response. If that changes, we have the option of reassessing the policy. That seems eminently sensible to me.

  3. Bill Poppe (History)

    After just reading about Syria’s chemical and biological weapons history last night at I think they may have the equivalent of WMD and the situation is becoming very dangerous.

  4. anon (History)

    And how exactly are the United States or Israel going to secure the chemical weapons when the time comes?

    How exactly does the United States and/or Israel know that quantities of a nerve agent haven’t already been delivered to Hezbollah or another terrorist organization?

    Who within Syria guarding the chemical weapons can be trusted not to sell out when it becomes obvious that war is lost?

    How quickly can looters among the rebels be expected to take whatever they can from the weapons, just like Iraq?

    Someone needs to give Assad an out to a life style that he and his family would be willing to share. Otherwise his fear has to be ending up like Gaddafi or Murbarak, and if that is his fear; what if he wants to go out with a bang for revenge or some other purpose?

    Nerve agents with appropriate dispersal can kill large neighborhoods or otherwise confined areas within cities. I hope Obama is doing a better job than Bush/Chaney did in Iraq II, in planning/preparing for the aftermath, where nothing was secured and the entire country was effectively looted.

    This is a touchy situation as neither the United States nor Israel wants to appear to the Arab street to be interfering in the civil war with a premature set of raids to secure the weapons.

  5. Jon W (History)

    without commenting on whether Syria is on or off the list of potential states against whom nuclear weapons might be used under current policy, I would just note that no senior official from this Administration has ever ruled them in or out. Thus, a certain level of ambiguity remains. By design? By default? You have to be the judge.

    That being said, there is value in the fact that in this case, the President was clearly stating that we will use our conventional military capabilities if needed and they are more than sufficient.

    • Stephen Young (History)

      Jon, you are far better at this than I, but where does the President “clearly state” that we will use conventional military capabilities? If he’d said “a range of conventional contingency plans” that–to me–would be clear. What am I missing?

      Because, as both Jeffrey and you point out, in fact US policy still maintains that Syria COULD be targeted w/ nuclear weapons, which is to me the more important point. Whether or not the media assume (or don’t) that Obama’s words mean nuclear threats could, to me, just as easily be a result of August doldrums, not enlightened understanding.

  6. Another anon (History)

    Jeffrey, I don’t really have a complaint with your take on declaratory policy, but I do think you’ve missed a critical point. Context. No one heard a nuclear threat in Obama’s comments, not only because he wasn’t making one, but also because it would have been absurd to threaten nuclear use in response to chemical use in a civil war. Most people (Keith Payne not withstanding) understand that we would only use nuclear weapons if our own or our allies vital interests were threatened, and then, in only the most dire circumstances. Chemicals in a civil war don’t rise to that standard. So, a threat to use them would be incredible, and would deter nothing because it would be incredible,so no one heard it.

    In the Clinton-era case, where Perry used ambiguity (and Bush did the same in 1991 when Baker threatened Aziz over chemicals), there was at least a tinge of credibility to the threat to use nukes. People “heard” nuclear in the threat because they could believe we might “use” nuclear.

    In my opinion the George W. administration really undermined this calculus. His minions used ambiguous threats so often that they began to lose meaning. Hadley did it in his Stanford speech, when he said we wouldn’t rule out any options against states that sponsored or financed terrorists, and we all heard a nuclear threat (does that mean we’d nuke the Saudis???) and Chilton did with respect to cyber attack. The ambiguous threat stretched so far and George W. seemed to threaten nuclear use so often that the threats were not credible and meaningless.

    Anyway. Context. If the circumstance doesn’t rise to the level where you might actually believe we’d use a nuke, then a nuclear threat is not credible. And, in that context, folks won’t hear a nuclear threat in ambiguous language.

  7. Jon (History)

    I think things would have to escalate far beyond civil war to resort to nuking Syria. For example, if Israel was attacked by Syria with WMD, such as chemical or biological weapons. But even in this unlikely event, the US would still resort to conventional weapons since they would be as effective as nukes without the hazards of radiation and fallout.

  8. krepon (History)

    Lew Dunn and I were contemplating a variation of this topic over lunch today: forget about prompt global strike. Is the Bomb becoming a niche weapon for the US? When can it be used?

    • Jon (History)

      This could be true, especially with the B61-12 LEP.

  9. J (History)


    Can someone help me with what is exactly meant by phrases like: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime…We have communicated in no uncertain terms”

    I mean, how can I imagine such a process of communication?


    • Cthippo (History)

      There are indirect diplomatic channels open between the US Government and the government of Syria. As a hypothetical it might look like the US government sending a message to, say, the Indian government who then passes the message along to the Syrians.

      In either Schwartskopf’s or Powells book on Iraq 1 they mentioned sending a message to Saddam listing all the nasty things we were going to do if he used WMDs. Even in war it’s valuable to have a way to talk to your enemies.

  10. Nick Ritchie (History)

    I think Jeffrey has rightly noted a subtle shift. The rogue state-WMD-terrorist nexus has been at the apex of US national security threat perceptions really since the 1990 Regional Defense Strategy. It was practically unconstitutional to explicitly remove nuclear weapons from the spectrum of possible US responses to concrete manifestations of this nexus, irrespective of the credibility of nuclear threats in specific circumstances. Washington’s brand of nuclearism does seem to have been diluted under Obama and the nuclear silence around responses to Syria is notable…for now. That could quickly change if US forces gather in the region and are subsequently threatened with a major CW attack.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Threatening US forces with a major CW attack would put Assad in competition for the “stupidest man on the planet” award. If it comes to that, you save the gas for the enemies who don’t have gas masks, or the ability to respond in kind or worse.

      And I think part of the implied deal when the US disposed of its CW stockpile was that, yes, if you use nitrogen mustard on us, we get to use lithium deuteride on you. A WMD attack justifies a WMD response, and we’ve only got the one kind of WMD left, hint hint.

      Probably best to leave some degree of ambiguity there. In many cases a purely conventional response would be the best way to deal with a CBW attack on US forces, and we don’t want to limit ourselves either way with declaratory policies.

    • Cthippo (History)

      “yes, if you use nitrogen mustard on us, we get to use lithium deuteride on you. A WMD attack justifies a WMD response, and we’ve only got the one kind of WMD left, hint hint.”

      I LOLed. I’m borrowing that joke!

  11. Johnboy (History)

    Interesting that nobody has picked up on the “but also to other players on the ground,” rider that Obama put into his statement.

    He didn’t need to put that in, but he did.

    So there must be meaning behind it, because he wouldn’t put it in just out of some sense of fairness or evenhandedness.

    After all, when has US foreign policy ever been about fairness or evenhandedness?

    Perhaps he’s putting out a message as well as laying down a marker e.g. so long as chemical weapons aren’t being used then as far as this administration is concerned Assad can deploy whatever heavy weaponry he wants against those rebels, and the USA ain’t gonna’ do nuthin’ ’bout it.

  12. Scott Monje (History)

    If any part of your justification for intervention relies on the notion of protecting the civilian population from direct assault by the army, and the people under assault are in an urban neighborhood in Damascus or Aleppo, it’s pretty difficult to devise a way to accomplish your goal with nuclear weapons.

  13. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Red line? Nobody takes American “red lines” seriously.

    What is US going to do if the Russians land a couple of divisions with all the modern warfare bells & whistles at Tarsus? Are we going to go to war with the Russians? What was the last physical war we won? Granada? Haiti? Panama?

    Assad knows better than be suicidal by attacking Israel or Turkey. Internally, he will do anything to stay in power.

    I am afraid that US and EU taking sides is needlessly prolonging suffering; it’s easy to give advice when you are 10,000 miles in the comfort of your living room and 3D TV watching the clowns at CNN playing “revolutionaries” like they did in Tahrir Square.

    Reminds me of similar incitement by the US during the 1956 invasion of Hungary by the Soviet army, when US let the Hungarian revolutionaries be massacred.

    How about concentrating on creating jobs in the US and preventing the new financial cliff predicted for 2013!

    • Alan Tomlinson (History)

      If the Russians were to “land a couple of divisions with all the modern warfare bells & whistles at Tarsus” I for one, would wonder how I had ended up watching a Michael Bay movie.

      The Russians, and I assume here that you are referring to the troops under the command of the government of Russia, are more likely to change their national beverage to yak’s milk from vodka than they are to engage in a large-scale mechanized invasion of the eastern Mediterranean.


      Alan Tomlinson

  14. Ara Barsamian (History)


    Tarsus is an existing Russian naval base in Syria, and Russian navy troops and materiel move in and out continuously… they are already there..

    • George William Herbert (History)

      …Two divisions, that are not ready to mobilize or deploy, that would take three to five times the sealift Russia has on the Black Sea, including taking every civilian cargo ship and ferry they have there under Russian flag. Through the Bosporous, in violation of longstanding naval treaties, owned by Turkey who are a NATO member and not-friend of Syria at the moment.

      To put them a thousand sea miles from home through hostile waters / airspace in a country surrounded by hostile neighbors and in a civil war.

      Russia of old (USSR) did this twice to immediate neighbors without the geopolitical and logistics nightmare. Now, this is a bad fiction scenario.

  15. Ara Barsamian (History)


    They are already there

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Ara, there are currently three companies of Russian marines on three amphibious ships at Tartus. Not two divisions.

      There isn’t enough space for 2 divisions to bivouac in town.

      The base is about a kilometer long and 200 meters wide. They couldn’t stand there all at once.

      Please try again.

  16. jeannick (History)

    A globally incoherent message in a globally incoherent situation

    could be used
    To say something deep , strong and meaningful to the medias
    (hint ,there is an election ,this is the POTUS card)

    To be used as a manufactured pretext to rush boots on the ground in case of something or other.

    A hint to Assad that he has something to bargain his safety with , to grease an graceful exit , something he should be careful to keep tightly to his bosom

    A signal to beloved Israel that the situation is being monitored with care

    A signal to Putin that short of Damascus doing something truly desperate or stupid , the whole place can go to the dogs the U.S. will not do much