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Obama: “I Didn’t Set A Red Line”

red line

President Obama doesn’t seem to like his “red line” very much:

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the red line he spoke of last year regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons came from international treaties and past congressional action, and he challenged the international community to join him in enforcing bans on such armaments.

In direct and confrontational remarks to reporters in Sweden, Obama laid out his rationale for wanting to attack Syria on the same day a Senate committee in Washington will vote on a proposed resolution authorizing limited U.S. military strikes.

He also insisted he had the authority to order attacks on Syria — expected to be cruise missile strikes on Syrian military command targets — even if Congress rejects his request for authorization.

America “recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe,” Obama said. “It becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity.”

The thing is, of course, that President Obama did set a red line just over one year ago:

I get what the President is trying to do here. He’s trying to make the debate in Congress less about him and more about the fact that the U.S. is just part of a larger world community that has condemned the use of chemical weapons going back to the decade after World War One. The problem with his argument, though, three-fold. First, putting this at the feet of the “international community” just raises the point that, except for France, the United States currently stands alone in support for a military response to the Assad regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons. If this is really about the international community, then where is that community right now, and shouldn’t the fact that most of the world, and most of the American people, don’t want to get involved in Syria at this point be a factor in determining how the U.S. should act? Second, the international chemical weapons conventions that the President speaks of give authority to enforce these international norms to the United Nations, not the United States. Finally, the way the President phrased this, given all of his statements in the past just makes him look silly.

I’m nowhere near having an opinion about how this is likely to fare in the House and Senate, but it doesn’t seem like the President is doing himself any favors.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Pharoah Narim says:

    Here’s some calculus… Political campaigns are funded by less than 1% of registered voters. Politicians tend to do whatever the people that fund their campaigns desire them to do. What do you think is going to happen?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  2. Rodney Dill says:

    I see a political cartoon in the future of “pre-school” Obama with a red marker scribbling on a wall and an authority asking, “Did you write on that wall?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  3. JKB says:

    America “recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe,” Obama said. “It becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity.”

    Said the international vigilante, who plans to take action because the community as a whole refuses to act to stop those who commit horrible crimes and make the neighborhood dangerous.

    Death Wish 2013 – Red Line Crossed

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I’m not so sure it’s just France. If this reporting is true, that AIPAC is making this a test vote, I think it’s safe to say that Israel is on-board as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  5. al-Ameda says:

    Finally, the way the President phrased this, given all of his statements in the past just makes him look silly.

    We really get bogged down in minutiae, don’t we?

    Yes, of course words matter, and given that he decided to go to Congress on this, he probably regrets that ‘red line’ rhetoric now. However it doesn’t matter today, he’s asking Congress for the authority to take action against the Syrians for crossing that line, and frankly I’m not interested in parsing that ‘red line’ rhetoric.

    I personally feel that Congress will vest him with limited authority to conduct a strike against Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 7

  6. Donald Sensing says:

    Don’t think he was denying he ever said there was a red line. He was trying to say that he didn’t set it, he was only recognizing a red line that the “international community” had set long ago.

    This is not to say that he made his point very clearly or succinctly.

    Also, and I don’t mind someone fact checking me here, the chemical weapons conventions Obama has referred to do not include Syria as a signatory. That matters in international case law because the UN has never declared those conventions to be binding on non-signatory nations in the same way it has on other conventions (such as slavery).

    Several commentators in the last couple of weeks have pointed out that this is why Obama kept referring to international “norms” and not “law.”

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 28 Thumb down 2

  7. al-Ameda says:

    @JKB:

    Said the international vigilante, who plans to take action because the community as a whole refuses to act to stop those who commit horrible crimes and make the neighborhood dangerous.

    Just imagine how dangerous Obama would be if he wasn’t just another Democrat who was weak on defense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  8. Rob in CT says:

    The problem with the international law/norm argument is that it doesn’t really work without UN approval. I must break this international norm over here to enforce this other international norm over there isn’t a great argument.

    I’m not against the idea that certain things should simply be beyond the Pale and trigger a response from “the international community.” The tricky thing is that the vehicle for this is the UN, and the UN has some serious barriers to action (Security Council veto). If we don’t like that, well, we set up the UN. And we use that veto when it’s useful to us (Israel).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  9. James Pearce says:

    If this is really about the international community, then where is that community right now(?)

    Sorting out the lint in their belly buttons.

    give authority to enforce these international norms to the United Nations, not the United States.

    This would have really played in 1993. Now, though, the UN is little more than a tourist attraction in New York. The words “UN” and “authority” should not be used in the same sentence.

    the way the President phrased this

    Live by the sound bite, die by the sound bite. In the big scheme of things, I don’t think “the way the president phrased this” will really matter all that much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. Jack says:

    Finally! There is actually something that applies when 0bama says “You didn’t build that”! He didn’t make the “red line”, the international community did!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 9

  11. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    What’s to be done when the international community has no interest in policing international norms?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  12. grumpy realist says:

    @Rob in CT: From a viewpoint of international law, this isn’t quite true. International law has a complete body of law of its own which has accumulated over the years much of which has very little to do with the UN. (The founding documents of the Law of the Sea were written down by Grotius, many years before the UN was even conceived of.) A lot of that prior law has been codified in treaties via the UN, but the UN did not create the law. Usually the UN has acted as a clearing house for international treaties which people sign on to, although there are a lot which have been managed outside the UN (particularly in IP–see WIPO).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. International norms are only norms when enough countries want to implement them. I think we’re seeing crisis fatigue from a lot of countries–Europe is still dealing with its financial crisis, the bulk of the US population has had enough of getting dragged into Mideast messes no matter how much the Administration/AIPAC scream, and the rest of the world is going Syria Who?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  14. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    the international vigilante

    Are you unhappy that Obama has gone after the people who murdered 3000 Americans on 9.11?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 7

  15. C. Clavin says:

    Congressman Jenos “Indiana” Jones asks if;

    “…the administration’s decision to attack Syria was made to distract from other “scandals” like BENGHAZiiiiiii!!!!!!! and the IRS…”

    Actually…it was Joe Miller of “You Lie” fame…but seriously…have you ever seen them together? How do you know they aren’t the same people?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4

  16. PD Shaw says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    Syria is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bars “the use in war of asphyxiating gases, poisonous and other gases.” Some of the vagueness in this prohibition (which gasses? is this war?), led to the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), to which Syria is not a party. That convention is more specific about which chemicals are banned, under which circumstances, and permits certain chemicals to be used as weapons in law enforcement. (Its also worth noting that the U.S. signed the Convention with a number of express reservations, by which it believes its military can use chemicals under certain circumstances)

    My gloss on the history is that for most of the world following World War I, there is a strong norm against use of chemicals in conventional warfare between states. There has been less global support for banning use of chemicals for internal controls, and chemicals have been used internally or for anti-insurgency operations fairly regularly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  17. Scott F. says:

    Doug –

    Is the fact that the US is a signatory on both the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention completely immaterial? Just asking…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. rudderpedals says:

    ISTM disingenuous to fixate on the statement without taking a position on whether or not the US should react to the Sarin deaths over there. It’s a red herring.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  19. G.A.Phillips says:

    LOL!!!! Obama blamed the whole world today!!!!

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 7 Thumb down 14

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    Oh, except for the 2 % that dint force him to go all out. Must be the gays.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 13

  21. @Scott F.:

    Considering that neither of those documents gives the US enforcement authority? Yes, it is

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. @rudderpedals:

    I’ve taken a position. I oppose any military action by the United States against Syria.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    I’ve taken a position. I oppose any military action by the United States against Syria.

    Me too.

    Unless Obama says that we have found this missing WMD’s from Iraq and we are demanding that they be turned over to the U.N. for disposal.

    If they are not handed over in a week we start carpet bombing palaces and military bases until they are.

    Or he could attack the Al-Qaeda forces from the air and sea. That would be cool too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 9

  24. Matt Bernius says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Congressman Jenos “Indiana” Jones asks if; …

    This type of off-topic, posting the same thing over and over again, troll-baiting was/is lame when Jenos does it.

    Why on Earth do you think that copying his off-topic styles in the hopes of baiting him into posting is any less lame?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 1

  25. wr says:

    @C. Clavin: “Actually…it was Joe Miller of “You Lie” fame…but seriously…have you ever seen them together? How do you know they aren’t the same people? ”

    Because Miller has actually accomplished something in his life.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  26. dazedandconfused says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Bibi has made his view crystal clear on this. Congress had better know that if they vote defeat this, then they will have Assad applauding them while Netanyahu condemns them as stupid cowards.

    On the “red line” stuff…I guess the only acceptable way for the President ever comment has become ‘as if he is speaking for the whole world’. He could have dodged this criticism by adopting the royal “we”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  27. Pharoah Narim says:

    “Conventional” warfare has far surpassed the lethality of chemical warfare since those treaties were signed. In the 1920s, chemicals could kill alot of people with lightning speed. They were a legitimate threat….but so was polio and scarlet fever. Times have changed. A “norm” against them is ,frankly, stupid. This whole this is a puppet show. I’d respect the goverment(s) more if they just came out and said, “Our handlers have said we’re going in….so we’re going in.” instead of hiding behind silly debates, votes, phony “inspectors”, etc. This is going to happen…period. All this other fluff is to keep the natives from getting overly restless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  28. walt moffett says:

    A politician dissembles and/or develops amnesia when confronted by the press, is expected behavior.

    On a side note, this New Scientist article, How the US may try to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons maybe of interest@Gold Star for Robot Boy: . Note the last three paragraphs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  29. C. Clavin says:

    Because BENGHAZiiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Pharoah Narim:

    “Conventional” warfare has far surpassed the lethality of chemical warfare since those treaties were signed.

    My old man, as a radar operator on a B-29, took part in the Tokyo fire raids that killed millions. Does not napalm behave according to the laws of chemistry? This is stupid. It is stupid, stupid, stupid. Can we just accept that some will die, and that we can not save them all? (I wish we could. We can’t.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  31. Rob in CT says:

    Senate Foreign Relations committee approves action 10-7-1. Blech. Pros were 2/3 Dem, antis 2/3 Rep.

    At least one of my senators (Murphy) voted no.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  32. bill says:

    guess the international media weren’t told not to ask him hard questions? they must all be racists…..and he looks like an ass internationally now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  33. john425 says:

    To sum up: President Obama’s hopes for Syria are as follows:
    1. Distract Americans from more pressing matters.
    2. Divide the GOP, the right-leaning movement, and Americans generally
    3. Blow crap up.
    Bonus: Who gets the blame when the Syrian effort turns out like Egypt and Libya? Why the Republican House leaders, that’s who. How is this possible, you ask, when Barack Hussein Obama himself has been talking all Red Line and stuff?
    He has the media, that’s how. Oh yes, Barack Obama is going to enjoy this Syrian debacle and the GOP will help give him cover. It’ll turn out to be good for him. Bet on it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 8

  34. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: Christ almighty, you’re trying to troll me when I’m nowhere around. I don’t say this lightly, but get an effing life, you waste of skin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 6

  35. anjin-san says:

    @ Jenos

    you waste of skin

    You really do have seemingly endless layers of creepiness.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 7

  36. Jenos Idanian says:

    @anjin-san: It’s a line I picked up years ago from a guy I worked with. The implication is that there are a lot of burn victims in need of skin grafts; the only good this idiot would be worth is to skin him and pass that along.

    Or, if you prefer, “oxygen thief?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 5

  37. JKB says:

    @anjin-san: Are you unhappy that Obama has gone after the people who murdered 3000 Americans on 9.11?

    Going after them that attacked you and are a continuing threat is a not the same as deciding you are going to unilaterally enforce international conventions. As Doug points out, none of the treaties say if you violate this treaty the U.S. will expend some ordinance in your general direction solely at their own discretion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  38. anjin-san says:

    @ Jenos Idanian

    Buzz off creep.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  39. anjin-san says:

    @ Pharoah Narim & OzarkHillbilly

    We seem to be caught up in the concept that killing via gas is especially horrifying. As many have pointed out, perhaps that was true in WW1, but we have become much more efficient killers since then.

    Dead is dead. What is horrifying is the ease with which human beings slaughter each other.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  40. Laurence Bachmann says:

    With each passing day I have less sympathy (and respect) for the President. He clearly had no stomach for these attacks for months. He allowed Cameron and howling neocons to brow beat him into an action he was loath to take succumbing to the asinine argument that death by chemical weapons is somehow more heinous than being blown to a bloody mist or dying slowly from a gun shot, or starving.

    Then after the UK parliament fiasco he tries back pedaling to “engage” Congress–something he never felt obliged to do when illegally attacking Libya or ignoring the sovereignty of allies. Suddenly he remembers we have a constitution! Thanks, Mr P. Wonder how long that will last–surely only til your next drone attack.

    I used to think, right or wrong, Obama had integrity. Today’s semantics and parsing meaning about red lines is of a piece–all of it embarrassing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5

  41. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Laurence Bachmann:
    I’d rather have a president dithering his way to peace rather than confidently charging to war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  42. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: We seem to be caught up in the concept that killing via gas is especially horrifying. As many have pointed out, perhaps that was true in WW1, but we have become much more efficient killers since then.

    To steal a thought from David Gerrold: if certain weapons are inhumane, then what makes other weapons “humane?”

    Or to quote Archie Bunker:

    Gloria Bunker-Stivic: Daddy, did you know that sixty percent of the people murdered in this country in the last ten years were killed by guns?

    Archie Bunker: Would it make you feel any better, little girl, if they was pushed out of windows?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  43. bill says:

    @anjin-san: i actually agree with that, there’s over 100k dead in this civil war and we’re upset about gas? dead is dead, how you get there does matter but still, who would we be sending a message to? i think we’re just being manipulated by people who do not have our sense of humanity- let alone any sense of decency. we lose either way, and it does suck.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  44. C. Clavin says:

    Archie Bunker? Seriously? Archie f’ing Bunker?
    That explains sooooooo much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  45. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: Go away, Cliffy. I’m sure you can find some more dead people (mainly Americans) you can find just hilarious.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  46. C. Clavin says:

    C’mon Jenos…use some more Archie Bunker to explain why we should abandon the Geneva Conventions and the associated Chemical Weapons Convention…becuase that is what you are advocating/supporting/defending. C’mon…I’m fascinated by the opportunity to see your sytem of logic in action.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  47. Pharoah Narim says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @anjin-san: A “conventional” Massive Ordinance Air Blast a.k.a MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs) pushed out of the back of a C-130 would mangle, burn, liquiefy, and disintigrate every human within a 280,000 square foot area to a level that would make the evening news viewer throw up in their E-Z- chair. So, the message is that the MOAB is a legal, humane way to kill– but chemicals, that have significantly less kill ratio and kill radius is ok?!?!? Chemical weapon are nothing but a goad to involve the West into the conflict, and, in my opionion, this goad was staged at that.

    Look, the good thing about this is that it is showing people that have eyes to see that the people you think are in charge…aren’t in charge. Every Administration since WWI has been involved in starting or continuing a conflict. All of these guys aren’t the war type—but they magically morph into war Presidents once in office. We’ll be moving into a hundred years of this type of thing in the next decade. Its not the cucumbers that have a weird taste…its the pickle juice they float in….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  48. He makes such a big deal about color that I never imagined he was color blind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  49. JoshB says:

    @C. Clavin:

    It was actually Joe Wilson of SC. Joe Miller was the AK Senator-wannabe that was quite literally measuring the drapes before losing to write-in Murkowski. They are however both douche bags, so easy to see the mix up.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  50. Pinky says:

    @Laurence Bachmann:

    I used to think, right or wrong, Obama had integrity. Today’s semantics and parsing meaning about red lines is of a piece–all of it embarrassing.

    It’s easier to see these things when you disagree with someone. Now go back and look at his statements and actions on health care, the stimulus, the NLRB, gay rights, et cetera, and you might see a different pattern than you’d ever noticed before.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0