The U.S.’s intelligence community has apparently concluded “with varying degrees of confidence” that fairly reliable evidence of exposure to chemical weapons (sarin) has been turned up in Syria, meaning that, to some, President Obama’s famous “red line” has been crossed and now he’s going to be forced to action. That’s certainly the conclusion of a variety of prominent Republican and Democrat senators; as Andy McCarthy points out, it isn’t actually that surprising those already eager to support some kind of humanitarian or military intervention are pushing the importance of this development, whether they’re on different sides of the aisle or not.
But while the president’s “red line” was probably an unwise announcement in the first place, he retained a lot of wiggle room. It was never much of a “red line,” but actually quite a pinkish statement (an Nantucket-red line, perhaps, given our current secretary of state): ”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,” he said in one instance. He repeated basically the same thing in Jordan yesterday, asserting that this was “not an on-or-off switch” but that it would “change his calculus.”
Leaving aside that the president is basically saying his line is not a line at all, the question of what we’re “seeing” and when is really important, too, and would give him lots of room anyway. His commitment isn’t that meaningful simply because of how hard the facts are to assess, even if we now have some evidence our intelligence services trust. If the intelligence community’s assessment is correct, as Jeffrey Lewis at ArmsControlWonk points out, we have very solid evidence of rebels or civilians who’ve been exposed to chemical weapons — not of how this happened, when, or where. It doesn’t seem that hard to believe that sarin exposure could have happened accidentally, and that certain parties pretended it was used as a weapon against them, when they have such great incentives to do so. As Lewis explains:
For all we know, these two poor souls stumbled into sarin canisters while ransacking a liberated Syrian military sites. I don’t say that to be callous, but rather because strange things happen on the battlefield. Remember, in 1991, U.S. troops detonated a pit of munitions at Khamisiyah in Iraq only to discover that the munitions contained sarin. The image atop the post is one of a series showing U.S. forces detonating the munitions at Khamisiyah, exposing thousands of U.S. service personnel to low levels of sarin. This was the worst such event, butnot the only potential exposure of U.S. forces in 1991 to nerve agents.
If the U.S. army managed to trigger accidental sarin exposure on multiple occasions, I’d say physiological evidence that Syrian rebels have had such exposure simply isn’t enough, especially given the incentives that Obama’s and the West’s red lines, however blurry, create. It’s going to be remarkably difficult, and is necessary, to ascertain the precise details of sarin exposure. There’s actually good reason to insist that we acquire better evidence, whether through a U.N. investigation, which Syria is obviously blocking, or other work that will involve Western observers on the ground. Reports from the Syrian rebels or Gulf nations simply aren’t that credible, again, because of the obvious incentives they face. The only way the nature of chemical-weapons use is obvious without first-hand confirmation is if Assad simply starts using them on a large, murderous scale, at which point talk of presidential red lines will be displaced by moral and humanitarian ones.
Further, even if the president had actually said that the use of chemical weapons would be an “on-off switch” rather than a “calculus changer,” he has never specifically suggested what we’d be switching to. ”Taking action” can, not least to this president, mean just new forms of diplomatic pressure. There’s a range of forceful possibilities: providing greater, more lethal support for the rebels, pushing for a no-fly zone, a U.N. or NATO peace-keeping mission, but on some of those, the president’s support is hardly dispositive, since some such initiatives would effectively need U.N. Security Council approval, certainly under this administration.
What all of this means is that the president, despite the questionable decision to set such a “red line” when he hardly needed to, hasn’t really backed himself into a corner, regardless of how confident intervention advocates are that this week’s events have done so for him.