Syria tests Obama’s wits

Hisham Melhem

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“I do not pull out my sword where my whip is enough. And I do not pull out my whip where my tongue is enough.”

-Muawiyah Ibn Abu Sufyan

When American President Barack Obama said that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, or even the transfer of chemical weapons, will represent an unacceptable violation of red lines, he did not explain what his next move would be if Bashar al-Assad actually trespassed these red lines. What Obama failed to realize back then is that by making such a general warning, he has placed himself in a cage that he does not know how to exit, without gravely embarrassing his credibility or the U.S.’s reputation.

According to the New York Times, consultations among the president’s top aides did not at all address the concept of “red lines.” According to the daily, the president’s statement was a personal and random one that reflected his own personal views. What attracts attention is that Obama - unlike his predecessor George Bush - is extremely cautious and rarely allows himself to stumble as a result of a slip of the tongue.

Hints vs. blunt threats

Ever since the White House was forced to reveal information on the Assad regime's limited use of chemical weapons via a hesitant message to Congress officials, Obama has made his best effort to confirm that the preliminary evidence is only preliminary and not conclusive. His spokesperson clarified that when the president made his warning on red lines, he did not say that trespassing them will trigger a certain response. Obama is also exploiting the Americans’ legitimate worry of rushing into judgments and absolute intelligence evaluations, especially when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, as their experience with Iraq was catastrophic.

What attracts attention is that Obama - unlike his predecessor George Bush - is extremely cautious and rarely allows himself to stumble as a result of a slip of the tongue

Hisham Melhem

But what has a deeper meaning than Iraq (an experience Obama undoubtedly learnt from), is that Obama strongly resisted and still resists the idea of military involvement in any dispute across the world.

Obama’s problem is that he did not learn from the wit of Italian historian Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli and he has not adapted the prudence of history’s Muawiyah Ibn Abu Sufyan, who established the Umayyad Dynasty of the caliphate and was appointed Governor of Syria in 639.
Implied or hinted threats are a lot better than announced or blunt threats. A leader who makes threats, like Obama, must confirm to his rivals that he is prepared to force them to pay a huge price if they trespass red lines. Muawiyah’s wit in dealing with his rivals began with making statements, either to persuade, commend or flatter. After making such statements, Muawiyah emphasized and hinted that he was willing to use the whip to intimidate. Muawiyah’s principle is based on the importance of making his rivals aware that if they ignore his words and do not fear his whip, then the sword, his last option, will be awaiting them.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on May 16, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

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