Top Democrat: Obama’s red line strategy on Syria ‘not well thought out’

November 15, 2013

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee says President Obama's decision to draw a "red line" when it came to Syria using chemical weapons "was not well thought out."

"I don't think you draw a red line like that, that is not well thought out," Smith said during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday. "You do not say, 'If you step across this line, we will commit U.S. military force,' unless you really mean it, unless you know the full implications of it."

Smith also accused the administration of not working with Congress on foreign policy and of making it look like it was developing that policy "on the fly."

Obama drew the red line during an August 2012 press conference.

"We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons," Obama said back then. "That would change my calculations significantly."

As the Syrian civil war flared, though, the White House said chemical weapons had indeed been used on the Syrian people.

Obama moved to launch a military response, but ran into widespread opposition among the American people, a lack of assistance from the international community, and also a skeptical Congress, whose approval he wound up requesting. Eventually, a potential deal was announced for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to turn over the government's chemical weapons stockpile.

That deal remains a work in progress, but Smith said he remains optimistic.

"There are no guarantees, and it's not 100 percent," Smith said. "There is that risk. But I think the deal is pretty strong."

Smith also said, though, that the administration should have said up-front that its objective was merely getting rid of chemical weapons instead of the stated policy of retaliating against their use.

“That too sort of looked like an afterthought – ‘Oh, gosh, if he gets rid of them, of course we won’t do this.’ Well, you should have said that right up front when you articulated the policy," Smith said. "And I think that lack of clarity and at least the appearance that it was sort of being developed on the fly did undermine our credibility.”

Below is video of Smith's appearance. The red line comments begin at about the 27-minute mark.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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