“U.S. not rushing on signs Syria used chemical weapons.” That’s how the New York Times headline put it. Another might be: “Red line is no line at all: Obama punts.”
After personally laying down a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, after Britain, France and Israel confirmed the use of chemical weapons and after our defense secretary said that the U.S. government believed “with varying degrees of confidence” that such weapons had been used, President Obama evaded, ducked and erased whatever line he had drawn. He has said that he “doesn’t bluff.” But that is precisely what he has done in Syria, and now with his bluff called, he has only double talk left.
He told reporters Friday as he sat next to Jordan’s King Abdullah in the Oval Office:
What we have right now is an intelligence assessment. And as I said, knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used. Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community. And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this.
And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists — all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region.
So we’re going to be working with countries like Jordan to try to obtain more direct evidence and confirmation of this potential use. In the meantime, I’ve been very clear publicly, but also privately, that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues.
So this is not an on or off switch.
Translation: Red line? What red line?
This is a pathetic and dangerous farce. As former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams put it, “The problem today is not only that this may leave [Syrian leader Bashar al-]Assad free to use chemical weapons again. A related issue of great consequence is what the administration has said about the use of chemical weapons: that it would be a game changer, that it is a red line, that it is unacceptable, and that all options are on the table for a U.S. response. Sound familiar? The administration has used exactly such language – ‘unacceptable,’ ‘all options are on the table’ – about the Iranian nuclear program. If such terms become synonyms for ‘we will not act,’ the regime in Tehran will soon conclude that there is no danger of an American military attack and therefore no need to negotiate seriously. They may have reached that conclusion already.”
He added, “What is at stake here is not only the future of Syria, but our own government’s credibility.”
After Friday’s performance, that credibility is close to nil.
Even before the president’s shameful weaseling in the Oval Office, Charles Krauthammer mused: “What’s at stake here is whether anything that this president now says is believable around the world. When you say ‘red line’ and you make the red line way out there — it’s not the slaughter of 80,000 of your own people; it’s the use of chemical weapons — and then you get definitive evidence that it has been used and you don’t do anything, then your word means nothing. . . . I’m wondering whether this administration understands how much of its word is at stake.”
Or whether it cares much. After all, a decade of war is “ending.”
The president’s dishonesty and irresoluteness should shake the Israelis and our other Middle East allies. If the United States is undependable, even when the president personally gives his assurance, then it is every nation for itself. Unilateral strikes? They’re better than waiting for Obama to act. A regional nuclear arms race? Washington won’t going to be there in a pinch, so any prudent country would want their own. And that is the likely reaction of our allies. Can anyone not employed by the White House or part of his public spin squad truly believe the president would use a military option to prevent Iran from going nuclear?
No modern president (not even Jimmy Carter, I think) by word and deed (or lack thereof) has done more to invite aggression by our foes. No president has been so cynical in his willingness to bend the facts and backtrack on his own assurances so as to avoid action. And no president has put in power an entire crew of national security advisers as weak as the one we now have. Responsible Democrats and Republicans should deplore this behavior and urge the administration to live up to the president’s warning. But even that I fear will be too little and too late. Tehran has already figured out that this president does bluff, ineffectively.