Clear-Cut Stupidity on Syria
Everyone’s on the hook for Obama’s “red line” comments. Except Obama.


Jonah Goldberg

‘The genius of you Americans,” the Arab-nationalist and one-time president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, once explained, “is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them which we are missing.”

I’ve long taken patriotic pride in such statements of befuddlement from foreigners. America is a gloriously complicated thing. We often confuse our national creeds for universal principles. We are a Jacksonian people (that’s Andrew Jackson, in case you were wondering) in love with Jeffersonian ideals and legalistically committed to Madisonian mechanisms. Like a guard dog that would rather not leave the porch, we are quick to anger but not necessarily quick to fight, and we are just as eager to forgive.


So from the vantage point of foreign brutes, bullies, and buffoons, it’s understandable that America’s methods could be confused for stupidity. This is why I love the old expression, “America can choke on a gnat, but swallow a tiger whole.”

So I am trying very hard to hold onto this perspective as I watch the president of the United States behave in a way you don’t have to be a pan-Arab autocrat to think is incredibly stupid.

Where to begin? Perhaps with Obama’s initial refusal to support the moderate rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a puppet of Iran and bagman for Hezbollah. Or we might start with Obama’s refusal to support the Green Movement in Iran, which sought to overthrow the Iranian regime, which would have been a triumph for both our principles and our national interests.

These were odd choices, particularly given his decision to help depose Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, an indisputably evil man, but also a dictator who posed no threat, who abided by our demands to relinquish WMDs, and whose domestic death toll was a tiny fraction of Assad’s.

“We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy . . . where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government” was Obama’s justification for an attack on Libya — without congressional approval. But when Assad killed tenfold as many men, women, and children, Obama refused to act for nearly two years. And when he finally decided it was imperative to attack Assad — after the dictator crossed a chemical-weapons “red line” drawn by Obama himself — he suddenly discovered the need for congressional authorization.

Sort of.

Obama doesn’t believe he needs authorization from Congress to strike Syria, he just wants it. He’s like a kid desperate for a prom date, but too vain to admit it. In Libya, Obama had the U.N. and NATO on each arm, so he didn’t bother with asking the dog on Capitol Hill for a date. But now, faced with the prospect of going it alone, he’s in effect telling Congress, “Hey, it’s not like I need your company, but you’d be crazy not to go to war with me.”

Whoops. As even Nancy Pelosi’s own grandkid now knows, we mustn’t call it a war. “The president is not asking you to go to war,” Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress. He’s merely asking them to authorize a sustained cruise-missile attack on military installations to “degrade” the regime’s “capabilities.”

But, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey, no one has asked the military to do anything that might change the “momentum” of the Syrian civil war. This is like saying you’re going to attack a runaway car barreling toward a crowd of kids, but do nothing to actually, you know, slow it down. What good does it do to trash the radio and rip out the cup holders on an out-of-control car?

Meanwhile, according to numerous accounts, Assad is moving military assets into civilian areas and civilians into military areas, even as the Obama administration insists it makes no difference militarily to wait for Congress to debate. That’s not just stupid; it’s an outright lie that will be fact-checked with blood. 

I understand the attraction the buddy system has for a man who, as a state legislator, perfected the art of voting “present” on hard questions. But it’s hard to see this as anything other than rank political cowardice.

The buck stopped with Truman. For Obama, the buck is kryptonite.

In Stockholm on Wednesday, the president said that the credibility of the world, America, Congress, and the international community is on the line. Everybody is on the hook for his red line, except for the one person who actually drew it.

I’d love to see the genius in that argument, but it looks like clear-cut stupidity to me. 

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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