In August of last year, the assembled White House press corps generously acquiesced to the president’s throat-clearing demande du choix and let him “be clear” on the subject of Syria. Secure in his clarity, Obama seized upon Chuck Todd’s inquiry as to whether the administration could “envision using U.S. military, if simply for nothing else, [for] the safekeeping of the chemical weapons” and took the opportunity to outline his position.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” he insisted, and “also to other players on the ground.” Heretofore, Obama explained, he had not considered military action against Syria to be necessary. But he knew when he would: “A red line for us,” the president established, “is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” And what would happen should either of those contingencies come to pass? “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,” Obama said. “The point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical,” he told Todd, thanking him for the question.
Obama’s approach was consistently reiterated during subsequent months. On April 25, the White House saw fit emphatically to “reaffirm that the president has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us.” The president’s official voice, Jay Carney himself, told wary reporters on May 6 that “the president’s use of the term “red line” was deliberate.” Moreover, Carney noted, “it was one that he and others in the administration have reinforced on multiple occasions ever since.” Indeed it was. So seriously did John McCain take the president’s “deliberate” and “clear” “red line” that, when it was crossed — in the senator’s estimation, without response — he argued that it yielded a “green light” to the Syrian government.
Clearly, McCain’s first mistake was to have taken the president at his word. After all, red and green are rather absolute colors, and lines, by their nature, are horribly binary. Maybe that sort of thing works for Manichean types like George W. Bush or Teddy Roosevelt, but it is wholly unsuited to the brilliant nuance that we can routinely expect from our 44th president. And so, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, the red line on which America’s hawks were relying came to be wherever the president said that it was. Reports of the transfer and possible use of chemical weapons came and went. But on the president floated, à la Churchill’s barb, “in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”
When the Assad regime finally called the president’s bluff, gassing its own people in such a brazen manner that even the administration was unable to claim uncertainty, it was time for Obama to give in and declare war . . . on the English language.
First came the field artillery. “President Obama did not draw the red line,” Nancy Pelosi declared on September 3, “humanity drew it decades ago.” Testifying in the Senate later the same day, Secretary of State Kerry further softened up the ground: “Now,” he complained gravely, “some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”
And so, with that dull sense of inevitability that descends when the barrage falls quiet and the whistles squeak weakly along the length of the trenches, the president emerged on Wednesday to tell a refreshingly tenacious assortment of foreign journalists that “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.” In Sweden, Obama channeled his inner John Lennon: “I am he as you are he as you are me — and we are all together,” he seemed to say. Or, as another celebrity known for an uncanny ability to turn black into white put it, “We are the world.”
The thing is, Obama explained, “when I said that my calculus would be altered by chemical weapons, which the overall consensus of humanity says is wrong — that’s not something I just made up. I didn’t pick it out of thin air.” After all, he continued, incredibly, “my credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility’s on the line.” So let’s have a little less l’état c’est moi, and a little more je suis le monde, eh?