Obama Administration Walking Back Obama’s Red Line
The Obama Administration appears to be in the process of walking back the substance of what, since last August, everyone had assumed was the Administration’s “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. The manner in which they are doing it, however, is utterly bizarre and calls into question just how seriously anyone is going to take future foreign policy pronouncements from this Administration:
WASHINGTON — Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.
The origins of this dilemma can be traced in large part to a weekend last August, when alarming intelligence reports suggested the besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. After months of keeping a distance from the conflict, Mr. Obama felt he had to become more directly engaged.
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
As a result, the president seems to be moving closer to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months ago. American officials have even discussed with European allies the prospect of airstrikes to take out Syrian air defenses, airplanes and missile delivery systems, if government use of chemical weapons is confirmed.
An Israeli airstrike in Syria on Thursday, apparently targeting advanced missiles bound for the Shiite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, highlighted the volatile situation. With Syrians already dying by the thousands from conventional weapons, Mr. Obama now confronts the most urgent foreign policy issue of his second term, one in which he must weigh humanitarian impulses against the risk to American lives. After about two years of ineffectual diplomacy, whether or how he chooses to follow through on his warning about chemical weapons could shape his remaining time in office.
The evolution of the “red line” and the nine months that followed underscore the improvisational nature of Mr. Obama’s approach to one of the most vexing crises in the world, all the more striking for a president who relishes precision. Palpably reluctant to become entangled in another war in the Middle East, and well aware that most Americans oppose military action, the president has deliberately not explained what his “red line” actually is or how it would change his calculus.
“I’m not convinced it was thought through,” said Barry Pavel, a former defense policy adviser to Mr. Obama who is now at the Atlantic Council. “I’m worried about the broader damage to U.S. credibility if we make a statement and then come back with lawyerly language to get around it.”
What these anonymous White House officials are saying, essentially, is that Obama committed a gaffe when he said back on August 19tb of last year that ”We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” Specifically, they’re saying that Obama went beyond the message that the White House intended to send to Syria and established a red line that has now backed the President into a corner. There’s just a few problems with this version of events, though. First of all, there was no attempt by the White House to clarify the President’s statements after they were made. Given the importance of what he said, one would have thought they would have wanted to do that relatively quickly after the press conference in order to ensure that there was no misunderstanding of what U.S. policy was on this vitally important issue. The fact that there was no such clarification suggests that the President had not misspoke back in August as the White House now seems to be trying to suggest. The second problem for this position is the fact that, as Blake Hounshell notes, the substances of the President’s remarks last August have been repeated several times both by Vice-President Biden and the President himself. The only difference has been that, at some point, the phrase “a whole bunch” disappeared from the Administration’s talking points. Whatever the exact words, though, the policy was still basically the same, and the impression was left with the world that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would result in a major change in policy by the United States.
When the President speaks on policy issues, it is generally always important, but it is even more important when he’s speaking on foreign policy issues. When a President makes a statement about tax policy, it is important to the political debate but it isn’t determinitive because Congress must approve any changes in the tax laws. When it comes to foreign policy, though, the President has near complete discretion is setting the direction of policy, so when he speaks it’s important that he speak clearly. Additionally, a Presidential statement carries with it a level of seriousness that requires fairly close precision in delivering the message the Administration wishes to communicate. That’s why there are times were you’ll see someone like the Secretary of State or the Secretary of State making a public statement rather than the President. In this case, though, it seems quite clear that there was a serious lack of precision in communicating what it was that the Administration wished to communicate. The result is that we now find ourselves in a situation where the red line is deemed utterly meaningless, which arguably calls into question the credibility of future foreign policy statements, or we find ourselves getting further involved in a conflict that we’d really rather avoid largely in order to maintain international credibility. That’s never a good reason to go to war.
President Obama’s problem now, of course, is the fact that he’s painted himself into a corner to some extent. By saying that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrians was a “red line,” he created the impression that the U.S. would not tolerate even a single chemical shell being fired. The “red line” was vague enough, though, that it was unclear exactly what the United States would do if the line was crossed,or even what kind of an act constituted crossing the line. Now that the Syrians have apparently engaged in the limited use of chemical weapons, the world expects the United States to do something and President Obama’s domestic opponents stand ready to pounce if they perceive that he’s backing down from the threat. Unfortunately for the President, backing down may be the smartest thing to do under the circumstances. For that reason, he may come to realize that drawing a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons wasn’t really a good idea after all.
Based on the comments in today’s New York Times, it seems that some in the Obama White House are coming to that very conclusion.