Denis Healey was the United Kingdom's defense secretary in the 1960s. He entered the pages of history mainly thanks to one wise piece of advice he gave politicians wherever they are: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."
Since then, politicians have been memorizing this proverb devoutly – and doing the exact opposite at the moment of truth, digging and digging. Why, they are asked, why are you doing this nonsense? They respond with one word: Credibility. Credibility stands above all, even above benefit, interest, common sense.
Credibility is an important value, but it's not the most important thing. Elie Wiesel's book, "The Biblical Soul," which describes a number of biblical characters, was recently published in Hebrew. Wiesel specifies cases in which God drew a red line, and changed his mind.
In the Deluge, for example, he informed Noah: "The end of all flesh is come before me; I will destroy them with the earth." Then he changed his mind. "I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done," God says. And that's just a sample.
President Obama had no intention of intervening militarily in the Syrian civil war. Nonetheless, he wanted to prove that his heart is not completely indifferent to the population's suffering. That's how the chemical red line was born. It was lip service, not an action plan.
Obama could have ordered a quick launch of a barrage of missiles towards military targets in Syria, concluding his part in the story. Instead he launched a global persuasion campaign, which was doomed to fail. The Europeans were not convinced, most members of the House of Representatives in Washington were not convinced, and most importantly, the public opinion in America was not convinced.
Making a mountain out of a molehillObama's appeal to the world and to Congress only caused damage: It inflated a symbolic, almost minor, military move, to the magnitude of a world war. It made a mountain out of a molehill.
Questions surfaced, and Obama had no satisfactory answers: How will the strike change the face of the civil war; how will it benefit the Syrian people; how will it deter against using weapons of mass destruction in the future; and how will it help improve international relations. Obama, everyone assumed, is urging an attack only to prove that he stands by his word. In the eyes of the majority of the world, that does not justify a military move.
Obama forgot the lesson taught by Denis Healey: He kept on digging. Over the weekend, the administration distributed horrifying pictures of Syrian gas victims. Secretary of State Kerry compared Europe's indifference to the use of gas in Syria to the Munich Agreement, in which Europe accepted Hitler's aggression. Assad may be dreaming of becoming Hitler, but he is not. This gross exaggeration only lessened the power of persuasion.
What we should be worried about is how the chemical weapons in Syria reflect on the Iranian nuclear program. The two have a lot in common: Both deal with weapons of mass destruction; both come out of the same axis of evil, with external support from Russia, China and North Korea; in both Obama drew red lines. The difference is in the scope of the damage: An Iranian bomb could fundamentally change the face of the region. If an American president is incapable of mustering international legitimization and internal support for an operation in Syria, how will he be able to keep his promises on Iran?
The solution requires the White House to rethink its moves. First of all, identifying the enemy: Not the Syrian regime alone, but the Iran-Syria axis; second, expanding and deepening the aid to the Free Syrian Army, the pro-Western group in the rebels' ranks; third, getting organized for the moment of truth in the conflict over the Iranian nukes. Digging in Syria is a waste of political ammunition. The American public opinion, which is deterred by attacking one country, will not rush to support an attack on two countries. Go for the essence.
Unless Obama's goal in digging in Syria is to ultimately bury the chance to curb the Iranian nukes. If that's the goal – he has achieved huge success.