Obama got ahead of himself with 'red line' talk on Syria
His reluctance to use U.S. military might without ironclad evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons is the prudent approach, especially given that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction there.
Benjamin Netanyahu about drawing "a red line" on what would trigger an American military response in the Syrian fiasco. That's the stuff of bully boys on neighborhood street corners, not of the leader of the United States, whose word cannot be randomly or casually be tossed about.
By talking tough in the early going of the crisis, Obama unwisely put his own credibility, and that of American foreign policy, on the line, now compromised by what seems to be transparent back-tracking from military action of some sort.
Talking now about a "game changer" triggering unspecified "consequences" risks further shaking the confidence of American allies in a U.S. political leadership already diminished by Obama's errant speaking too loudly from the start.
Earlier, in response to the demand for American military intervention in Libya, he took a wiser approach. Determined to move away from the previous administration's course of unilateralism in Iraq, he willingly let the British and French take leadership in the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. He authorized limited U.S. air power gauged to assert American effectiveness without establishing U.S. ownership of the eventually successful enterprise.
Aware of growing public dissatisfaction with his performance in the ongoing Syrian crisis, the president made a short-notice appearance yesterday (Tuesday) in the White House press briefing room. He argued that he and his advisers had not been "simply bystanders" from the outset, but had been applying sanctions and otherwise rallying the international community to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
"In pursuit of that strategy," he said, "we are the largest humanitarian donor, we have worked to strengthen the opposition" and have taken "a whole host of steps ... even separate from the chemical weapons issue," because "what's happening in Syria is a blemish on the international community generally, and we've got to do everything we can to protect the Syrian people."
That was what he should have limited himself to saying all along. He defended terming the use of chemical weapons in Syria "a game changer, not for United States but for the international community," because "you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want that genie out of the bottle."
His statement, he insisted, "wasn't a position unique to the United States and it shouldn't have been a surprise. What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when then were used, who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes what actually happened."
He went on, belatedly perhaps: "When I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts. That's what the American people would expect, and if we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do."
He said he told his team it had to "establish with some certainty" what has happened in Syria but added it is "already deeply invested" in the situation. Had Obama put his position forward in this way earlier, he might have avoided the furor his "red line" declaration triggered. It's the latest example of how presidential words need always to be uttered with precision and sensitivity to their ramifications.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)