Blurred Red Lines
Obama’s fumbling Syria policy is undermining U.S. power in the world.


Michael Barone

Blunder after blunder. That’s been the story of President Barack Obama’s policy toward Syria.

In April 2011, Obama said dictator Bashar Assad “had to go.” But he did little or nothing to speed him on his way.

At an August 20, 2012, press conference, in campaign season, he was asked about Syria’s chemical weapons and said “a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

On August 21, 2013, a year and a day afterwards, chemical weapons were used in large quantities in the Damascus suburbs, a 20-minute drive away from United Nations inspectors. Last week, all signs — strong statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, leaks of detailed military plans — indicated that Obama would soon order what he described as “a shot across the bow.”

But on Saturday, August 31, he announced that he would ask Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the use of military force — even though he believed he had authority to use it unilaterally. That means delay until Congress assembles on September 9 — giving Assad time  to put his military assets out of harm’s way.

There are strong arguments for voting against a resolution, the exact wording of which is not established at this writing. Obama’s “limited, tailored” approach seems certain not to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons and may well not deter him from using them. And we have the president’s word that he is not seeking “regime change.” In the unlikely event that air strikes do undermine the Assad regime, we have no assurance that an alternative would be preferable. Al-Qaeda sympathizers may gain the upper hand.

At the same time, there are strong arguments against a vote countering a resolution. Undermining the power of even a feckless American president risks undermining the power of the presidency — and of America — for years. Crossing a president’s “red line,” however improvidently drawn, should carry consequences, however limited.

Many in Congress, and not just Republicans, surely resent being called upon to authorize an action that public-opinion polls indicate is widely unpopular, particularly among the independent voters who can determine election outcomes in many states and congressional districts. If a vote were taken this week, the resolution would be rejected — just as a similar resolution was, unexpectedly, rejected in the British House of Commons on August 29.

Some Democrats want the resolution to strictly limit the president, while some Republicans such as Senator John McCain want a broader permit that would allow for regime change. Presidents usually prevail on issues like this, where they can argue that national security is at stake, and the administration can probably round up enough votes in the Democratic-majority Senate. That will be much harder in the Republican-majority House. Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have both endorsed a resolution. But Boehner and Democrat Chris Van Hollen have both called this a conscience vote and said their parties will not whip the issue. The White House will have to do the hard work of rounding up the votes.

At midweek, the Washington Post listed only 17 House members favoring military action and 130 opposed or leaning against. Most House Democrats voted against the Iraq War resolution in October 2002, when most voters favored it. Their party has dovish instincts going back to the Vietnam War, a fact largely ignored by the administration since the Democrats lost their House majority in 2010. House Republicans, the object of Obama’s continued denunciations and disdain, are not inclined to trust him at all. Many surely believe they’re being set up as fall guys for a president whose chief political goal is regaining the House majority for Democrats in 2014. That suspicion was surely enhanced in Sweden on Wednesday when Obama said, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

But the world is not clamoring to enforce it. The only nation contemplating joining the United States in military action is France. That’s 38 fewer allies than joined the United States after the supposed unilateralist George W. Bush, with congressional authorization, ordered troops into Iraq.

Former Bush-administration official Elliott Abrams has argued that Obama’s foreign policy is designed to restrain and reduce America’s power in the world. The twists and turns of his policy toward Syria certainly seem to be having that effect.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2013 The Washington Examiner. Distributed by

Obama's "Red Line"
President Obama is discovering that words matter, especially when you go off the teleprompter, as his marking of a “red line” in Syria has grown into a major political and foreign policy headache. Here’s a look at the “red line” controversy.
The president first laid down his red line on Syria in August of 2012, warning that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons it would prompt the U.S. to act more aggressively in the country’s bloody civil war.
On December 3, Obama amplified his warning: “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching. 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.”
In August, the Obama administration came forward with evidence it said proved that Syrian regime forces had used chemical weapons against civilians, killing more than 1,000 people. The administration quickly began to discuss retaliatory strikes, and revealed that four destroyers were headed to the eastern Mediterranean.
But just days later, with a cruise-missile attack seemingly imminent, the president announced he would first seek Congressional authority for a strike — thought he added he didn’t need it.
In Stockholm on September 4, the president claimed that he had never set a red line in Syria, and that it was the international community that set the line concerning chemical weapons.
Said President Obama: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’ credibility is on the line, because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”
Even some of the president's strongest supporters mocked the red line fiasco. Said Daily Show host Jon Stewart: “We have to bomb Syria because we are in seventh grade. And the red line — the red line that they crossed is actually a d**k-measuring ribbon."
Joked David Letterman: “Now the president is saying he never used the term ‘red line.’ He's saying that the world used the term ‘red line.’ So, it's taken him five years, but finally the guy has learned how to bulls*t.”
ONE TWEET OVER THE LINE: Twitter users saw the red line meme as another example of an administration in over its head on foreign policy. Here’s a sampling of comments on the #RedLine and #SyriaRedLine hashtags.
“Ironic that the president known for his amazing, soaring rhetoric may get us into war for his sloppy use of words. #RedLine #InCredible” (@hale_razor)
“Syria is the 1st time any President brought the nation to the brink of war because he tried to think off teleprompter and couldn't. #RedLine” (@derekahunter)
“2nd rule of diplomacy: Don't give an ultimatum you can't back up. 1st rule of diplomacy: Don't give an ultimatum.” #SyriaRedLine #ObamaAlone (@JamesGRickards)
“That awkward moment when Biden is NOT the one putting his foot in his mouth. #RedLine” (@Liberty_guy85)
“@ChrisStigall Pres #Obama didn't say "Let me be clear" before his #RedLine comments! Therefore he was under no obligation to be clear!” (@SonsofReagan)
“See everyone this is about humanity and congress..NOT THE ACTUAL WORDS THAT CAME OUT OF BARACK OBAMA'S MOUTH. #RedLine” (@redsteeze)
“Most of us who are only children usually have one imaginary friend to blame trouble on, but Obama's was "the world" (@StLNetworkGuru)
“The #RedLine is the lipstick-on-the-pig of Obama foreign policy.” (@ArrestedAplomb)
“Kerry just asked #HousePanel when Obama drew "red line publicly," 8hrs after Obama said he didn't draw a #RedLine” (@IngrahamAngle)
“Will @BarackObama draw a #Redline if Putin challenges him to an MMA fight?” (@SylenceDogood)
“Just so that u know, #Obama used the classic 'Family Circus' "Not me!" defense regarding his #redline n #Syria. Our 4yr old POTUS #tcot #p2” (@tahDeetz)
“This is not the #redline you're looking for - @BarackObama” (@amylutz4)
“Using a #Sharknado on your own citizens is a #RedLine for us & we'll have no choice but to send a #ghostshark #Syria #Twitter” (@ZuulHouseRock)
“Obama: I never drew a red line, Jay. Heck I don't even have a red pencil.” #redline (@aMarcPearson)
“Not me .. I didn't do it. Sounds a little bit like a child trying to blame anyone (and everyone) else for something HE did.” #RedLine (@lynette530)
“The world built that. #redline” (@hale_razor)
“I wish Christopher Stevens, et alia, were here to celebrate that color blind society. #RedLine” (@brownbearmike1)
“How about we have a #RedLine on veterans having to wait on their benefits?” @MMFlint (@SeldomSeen52)
“@JohnKerry @StateDept Hey John, are those some #RedLine s in ur eyes? War Hawk Lets bomb the sh!t outta someone!” (@SylenceDogood)
“I’m glad we finally live in a color blind society where I never have to worry the color of lines. #RedLine” (@SaintRPh)
“#SyriaRedline Maybe Obama is color blind & thinks his line is green or something & everyone else has a red line. Trying to give him excuse” (@1SeriousAmerica)
“Obama didn't set the redline he just tripped on it and fell flat on his face. #syriaredline” (@GeneralSmartAss)
Updated: Sep. 06, 2013