Obama needs no more 'red lines' [Commentary]

President Obama, in his determination to get American foreign policy off what he has called "a perpetual war footing," must take care now not to box himself in with any more comments about "red lines" that restrict his options.

As he appraises the growing threats to U.S. security from the Islamic State, the jihadist group that has taken over much of Syria and Iraq, he must make clear his continuing prerogative to take military action in legitimate self-defense. That remains so despite his repeated statements, made as if to ease fears at home and abroad, that there is "no military solution" to the crises in Iraq andUkraine.


The fluid situations in both places deny him any assurance that America will not have to take up arms. If American military and diplomatic personnel find themselves under attack or in imminent danger, Mr. Obama may have no alternative. The same could be true if the Baltic states under NATO protection are put in peril.

Last summer, Mr. Obama notably failed to put muscle behind his words when he threatened a U.S. military response if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to use chemical weapons. When Mr. Assad did cross that line, Obama was obliged to act. At the 11th hour, he sought Congress' permission for military force but made no determination to use it. Obama was saved from political embarrassment when Mr. Assad caved in and agreed to surrender his toxic stockpile.


For the administration to set further red lines, without being willing to follow through with military action when they are crossed, would risk Mr. Obama being cast as a paper tiger -- an allegation already raised by Republican hawks such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The time may have come when the president who wants to be remembered for ending American participation in two foreign wars, one of them unnecessary and other stretching beyond a decade, may have to take the country back in.

"The gift that keeps on giving." That phrase, once applied by reporter Bob Woodward to characterize Nixon's Watergate scandal, aptly sums up the reckless and ill-informed judgment of another president, George W. Bush. That gift has obliged his successor to spend much of his nearly six years in the Oval Office undoing the mess Mr. Bush left behind.

The current vice president, Joe Biden, was mocked some years ago when as a senator he proposed "federalizing" Iraq along the ethnic and religious lines to accommodate Shiites in the south and Sunnis and Kurds in the north. He has now resurrected the basic idea.

In a Washington Post op-ed article, Mr. Biden wrote that while "there is no negotiating" with the Islamic State, even if it did not exist "Iraq's survival would still depend on the ability of Iraqis to set aside their differences and unite in a common effort."

He reported that both Mr. Obama and he had spoken to the newly elected prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and other factional leaders amid discussions of a " 'functioning federalism' under the Iraqi constitution, which would ensure equitable revenue-sharing for all provinces and establish locally rooted security structures, such as a national guard, to protect the population in cities and towns and deny space for (the Islamic State) while protecting Iraq's territorial integrity," with U.S. forces offering "training and other forms of assistance."

Mr. Biden offered a mild assurance that the Islamic State is "far from invincible," as was evident in its loss of the Mosul dam when its fighting force was eroded, thanks to American air power. "It can be routed with local (Kurdish) forces without U.S boots on the ground," he added.

The last caveat is essential for Mr. Obama's on-going credibility with the American people. A lot is riding on that pledge as he strives to complete his presidency with his good word intact.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book 
is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is