Leadership Lesson from Obama and the Syria “Red Line”

Leadership Lesson from Obama and the Syria “Red Line” August 30, 2013

It’s called an ultimatum. Usually frustrated people make them. It’s what President Obama gave to Syria when he said the use of chemical weapons would be crossing a “red line.”

The goal of the cruise missile strikes the United States is planning to carry out in Syria is to restore the smudged “red line” that President Obama drew a year ago against the use of poison gas. (The New York Times)

I’ve seen it a lot from teachers, parents (myself included), and leaders of all sorts. We get frustrated with a situation, maybe we feel pressed into corner by others to make an official statement about a problem or perceived problem. We sense that our leadership credentials are being tested, so we try to appear strong, forceful, and decisive.

The ultimatum always sounds something like this:  “If you/they cross this line, then I’ll respond with this unprecedented and totally over-the-top action.”

In an out-of-control classroom of third-graders, the threat of losing recess for a week can sometimes modify behavior. If the promised action is extreme enough and the price for testing high enough, the ultimatum just might work. As parents, we might try, “If you don’t clean your room in the next thirty minutes we are so not going to Disney World tomorrow like we’d planned!” Now, you know full well that you are not likely to cancel those non-refundable tickets. But with a price tag that high, most kids will simply choose to clean the room.

Most, but not all. And definitely not tyrannical dictators already slaughtering their own people in a vicious battle to stay in power.

Yet when we feel our leadership authority being tested, we easily reach for what we think is the strongest arsenal in our repertoire — the ultimatum. We think that by threatening DefCon 4, all the sane people will get in line. But sanity is often a relative term, both with kids and tyrannical dictators.

President Obama and the Red Line in Syria

When I first heard President Obama and staff promise an escalated response (implying military action) I cringed. Now, any regular reader here knows I don’t agree with the President on much of anything, and I have very little respect for his leadership acumen. That being said, I cringed in the same way I did back in the day when Bush (43) chose to make Iraq about WMD. Anytime a leader unnecessarily issues an ultimatum, especially one that can be easily and visibly tested, he/she is taking a high-risk path that will likely test their credibility as a leader.

It now seems (some disagree) that Syria did indeed use chemical weapons. So the discussion has become more about whether or not Obama will keep his word as a leader instead of about whether we should be taking action in the first place. And that’s not a good place for a leader to be.

In the mother-of-all-ironies, Obama now must choose between admitting that he may have spoken hastily or go it alone, taking unilateral military action against the wishes of the global community and most the of the US population in a place where little if any US interests are at stake and no end game strategy makes much sense. If President G.W. Bush were that kind of guy, he’d be laughing pretty hard right now as he recovers from surgery.

How to Respond When We’ve Made an Ultimatum

When faced with an ultimatum that has backfired on us, leaders usually have few options:

  1. Reassess and acknowledge our error. We admit we spoke hastily, ask for understanding, and choose a new approach to the problem. Obviously this is the most humbling of options for a leader — and therefore, the one we seldom choose. I don’t think it’s the one President Obama’s hubris will permit him to choose, but I will applaud him if he does.
  2. Follow through on our ultimatum, consequences be damned. At least we kept our word. We hide our pride in words like  “integrity,” but it’s really only the first letter of that word that is relevant — “I.”
  3. Play semantic jujitsu. We creatively respond in a way that makes it look as if we actually did fulfill our ultimatum while not actually following through in the way everyone expected. The parent mentioned above might say, “What I meant was that we wouldn’t go into the Magic Kingdom park on the first day that we arrived at Disney World.” Truth be told, you hadn’t planned on it anyways, but your child with the messy room didn’t know it.

I think our President will choose option 3, by the way, especially now that even the UK has dropped support for any military response. At least I prefer that option to the one that will result in more dead Americans with little to no progress to show for it.

But with the way that Assad and friends are taunting him, I’m not at all confident that Obama will learn this leadership lesson in time to stop the bombs from falling.

Browse Our Archives