Someone had to take the fall for President Barack Obama’s thoughtlessly drawing a “red line” threatening serious consequences if Syria used chemical weapons. It turns out that it is the president himself.
Senior officials explained to the New York Times that last August, the president’s advisers had no idea he was going to boldly issue a red-line warning. The president was “unscripted,” according to one official. In this perilously untelepromptered state, he accidentally made a statement that sounded like it was fraught with foreboding.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” the president said, “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.” The phrase “red line” is a term of art usually denoting the trigger for the use of force.
We are now told by the officials that the red line was merely a gaffe, although evidently a serial gaffe. In March, Vice President Joe Biden said, “We’ve set a clear red line against the use [or] the transfer of those weapons.” A couple of weeks later, the president drew the red line again. “We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons,” he said, adding, “The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”
With intelligence indicating that chemical weapons were used in Syria, the president has been crab-walking away from his formerly stalwart stance. Trying to contort himself out of a falsehood in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton infamously insisted, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
For Obama, it depends on the meaning of “red,” “line,” and “accountable.” All these words present such complex definitional challenges that it is impossible for the layman to grasp the subtleties of his pensées.
Yes, perhaps chemical weapons were used in Syria, but were “a bunch” used, or even more importantly, “a whole bunch”? Who is to say that the president’s calculus, in keeping with his fearsome warnings, hasn’t “changed”?
He used to think about what to do if Syria deployed chemical weapons, and now he is thinking about what to do when it possibly has used chemical weapons. The president said, “The world is watching,” and true to his word — the world is watching.
For the president to issue a red line without thinking about what he would do if it’s crossed is statecraft as malpractice. It speaks to the solipsism of a president who likes the sonorousness of his own voice and who is so used to striking a pose that it comes as a shock when the world doesn’t cooperate.
White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that the president meant exactly what he said. He just didn’t say anything. “What he never did and it is simplistic to do so is to say, ‘If X happens, Y will happen,’” Carney explained. Well, he’s never said that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, he will do Y, either. The phantom Syria red line exposes all his declarative statements as potentially rhetorical fluff. Why wouldn’t he litigate his way out of them, as well, when they become inconvenient?
This possibility is noted by friend and foe alike. Surely the Iranians will be even more likely to discount the president’s Churchillian statements of resolve in stopping their nuclear program. Surely the Israelis, who just bombed Iranian missiles in Syria making their way into Lebanon, will be even more likely to believe in no red line except their own. Our other allies around the world, who depend on security guarantees that, at the end of the day, are based only on our word, will wonder, too.
Syria presents no good options, and it is important that we have confidence in the intelligence about chemical weapons (it is possible the rebels used them). But the president should never write rhetorical checks that he can’t or won’t cash. The whole world is always watching.