On August 20, 2012, President Barack Obama announced a “red line” that would cause the US to intervene in the Syrian civil war: the use of chemical or biological weapons.
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.
He reiterated this position on December 3, 2012:
The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.
This position is an example of the Precautionary Principle, and perhaps ironically, it is similar to the one that motivated President George W. Bush to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
The Precautionary Principle was developed for a different purpose–environmental policy. Andrew Jordan and Timothy O’Riordan write that the core element of precautionary thinking is that “[r]isk avoidance should become an established decision norm when there is reasonable uncertainty regarding possible environmental damage or social deprivation arising out of a proposed course of action.” This notion can be applied to any decision problem in which a choice must be made without perfect information — in short, virtually every decision that people and governments make. While it is true that proponents of the Precautionary Principle hail almost universally from the political Left. the principle itself need not embrace any particular political philosophy.
Jessica Stern (Harvard) and Jonathan Wiener (Duke) have written about the Iraq war as an example of how the Precautionary Principle can be the foundation for policies that most of its advocates would find reprehensible. That is, the overthrown of Saddam Hussein could be justified because of uncertainty concerning whether the Iraqi dictator possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and whether these weapons could be used against the US and its allies. The potential harms posed by WMD were clearly substantial, if not incalculable, and despite numerous opportunities to reveal the absence of such weapons the Iraqi government refused to do so. Had it done so, President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair would not have been able to justify overthrowing Saddam as an act of precaution. Ironically, the Iraqi government apparently thought that it was in its interest to cultivate uncertainty about its WMD capabilities and stockpiles.
Stern and Wiener point out that implementing the Precautionary Principle entails its own risks, most notably the creation of countervailing risks that, if they had been accounted for at the outset, might have been sufficient to decide differently even under the same decision rule. Of course, this is true about the Precautionary Principle generally, because its proponents, in whichever setting it is applied, tend to give much weight to the risks and costs they are most concerned about but little or no weight to risks and costs of concern to others. We can see this transparently in the writings of advocates of the Precautionary Principle in environmental policy who strenuously opposed its application to Iraq.
Fast forward to to the Syrian civil war and we see President Obama announcing a policy that appears to invoke the Precautionary Principle: The US will intervene if Syria uses WMDs. As news filtered out in the last couple weeks indicating that Syria had done so, the administration now faces pressure to follow through on this policy. But President Obama has resisted doing so, primarily by raising doubts about the quality of the intelligence.
When questioned about this at an April 30, 2013 news conference, the president appeared to concede that Syria had used WMD but that his “red line” required that additional information quality standards also be met, most notably that there be no uncertainty:
[W]hat we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened. And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts. That’s what the American people would expect.
There are three plausible ways to reconcile the president’s words with his August 2012 policy.
- The Precautionary Principle applies, but the quality of evidence that Syria has used WMD is too weak to justify triggering intervention. Usually, the precautionary decision maker takes action in the face of uncertainty about information he does not have. That aptly describes the approach taken by Messrs. Bush and Blair with respect to Iraq, but it is not here. President Obama’s policy is to take no action in the face of uncertainty about the information he does have.
- The Precautionary Principle applies, but the threshold level of WMD use that would trigger intervention is higher than Syria’s actual use. President Obama’s August 2012 policy statement was actually ambiguous and it occurred during remakes delivered to the White House press corps, not in a formal setting: “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.” Read carefully, what that followed “We have been very clear” was quite muddy. There is no quantitative definition for “a whole bunch” of WMD, nor is it obvious what constitutes “moving [them] around” or “being utilized.” To say that such information would “change my equation” implies that it would change his decision rule.
- The Precautionary Principle applies, but President Obama is precautionary with respect to a different set of risks and costs than those inferred from the president’s August 2012 statement. It has been assumed that the risks and costs about which the president is precautionary are associated with Syria’s WMD use. This may not be correct. It could be that the president is precautionary with respect to an entirely different set of risks and costs — in particular, risks and costs associated with US military intervention. Among these risks and costs are fiscal and political distraction from policy priorities of greater concern to him. While there may be a point at which he could avoid intervening in the Syrian civil war, the president may be highly precautionary about approaching that point — hence, the possibility that information confirming even massive Syrian use of WMD might lead him to adopt a different policy rather than implement the one he announced in August 2012.
Those who support intervention in the Syrian civil war may have reasonably interpreted the president’s “red line” as a bright one, but it is easy that it was in their interest to infer a bright line from the president’s fuzzy language. But it was also in the president’s interest to encourage supporters of intervention to interpret his words unambiguously, so long as it had the effect of deterring Syria from triggering the policy. Artificial clarity — that is, bluffing — can serve precautionary ends, but only if it works and the other players fold.
The lesson from this is that the Precautionary Principle is fundamentally an empty vessel that anyone can fill to serve a preferred goal. There are no agreed upon practices for deciding which risks and costs deserve precaution. In environmental policy, advocates of the Precautionary Principle have clearly defined which risks and costs they care about. Like other proponents of the Precautionary Principle, Jordan and O’Riordan clothed their “core element” in moral language, and this is what distinguishes the Precautionary Principle from risk averse decision making in general. It is essential when invoking the Precautionary Principle in environmental policy to dismiss the risks and costs others care about, such as countervailing risks and costs, on the ground that they are morally illegitimate. The same goes for other applications of the Precautionary Principle. Whether it is overthrowing Saddam Hussein or intervening in Syria, there is no agreement concerning which risks and costs deserve precaution and which do not. Yet this is an essential, if undisclosed, core element of the Precautionary Principle, for it is not possible to be precautionary with respect to all risks and costs.
Being precautionary with respect to some risks and costs requires being risk-loving with respect to others. If all risks and costs are counted, and given weight proportionate to their magnitude, the Precautionary Principle becomes indistinguishable from conventional decision theory. But conventional decision theory abjures moral claims, and the Precautionary Principle cannot survive without moral claims about which people reasonably disagree.