NYT: Obama retreating on “red line” for Syrian chemical weapons

posted at 9:41 am on December 7, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

In the summer of 2012, Barack Obama talked tough about “red lines” for Syria and the regime’s chemical weapons.  In a rare press conference on August 20th, the President warned Bashar Assad that the US was prepared to act if Assad began to move his chemical weapons as a precursor to their use, emphasis mine:

I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation.  But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical.  That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel.  It concerns us.  We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.

Almost four months later, the New York Times reports that the equation has changed, all right … but not in the direction Obama threatened.  Instead, the “red line” has moved backwards, apparently to negate the threat of military action before the use of chemical weapons by Assad in the Syrian civil war:

When President Obama first warned Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, that even making moves toward using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that might force the United States to drop its reluctance to intervene in the country’s civil war, Mr. Obama took an expansive view of where he drew that boundary.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he said at an Aug. 20 news conference. He added: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

But in the past week, amid intelligence reports that some precursor chemicals have been mixed for possible use as weapons, Mr. Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted. His warning against “moving” weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements, as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbors, he will face unspecified consequences.

When the White House was asked about this significant change, they claimed that there was no change.  They offered a Clintonian explanation instead:

The White House says the president has not changed his position at all — it is all in the definition of the word “moving.”

Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said Thursday that “ ‘moving around’ means proliferation,” as in allowing extremist groups like Hezbollah, which has training camps near the weapons sites, to obtain the material.

The NYT’s sources admit that Obama overshot the mark in August, though, and had to retreat on his “red line”:

But for Mr. Obama, the change in wording reflects the difficult politics and logistics of acting pre-emptively against Mr. Assad. No American president has talked more about the need to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, and to lock down existing stockpiles. And no president has insisted more publicly that this is a time for the United States to exit wars in the Middle East, not enter new ones.

“We’re kind of boxed in,” an administration official said this week as intelligence agencies in the United States and its allies were trying to figure out the worrisome activity at one or two of the three dozen sites where Syria’s chemical weapons are stockpiled. “There’s an issue of presidential credibility here,” the official said. “But our options are quite limited.”

The chief limitation, American and Israeli officials say, is that chemical weapons sites cannot be safely bombed. “That could create the exact situation we are trying to avoid,” said one senior American military official, who like several others interviewed would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

The Israelis disagree, and have their own contingencies for taking out the chemical weapons before Hezbollah gets their hands on them.  “We’re willing to do it,” an Israeli official told the NYT, “probably more willing than the Americans.”

That’s the problem with setting “red lines” publicly.  If you are not willing to take action, your credibility at that point is destroyed.  That’s why it is important to understand the situation and your own capabilities before setting those red lines, especially in public speeches.  Essentially, it makes Obama look as though he was bluffing, either deliberately or through ignorance, and neither makes the US look especially strong now.

Fortunately, there may be better news on the diplomatic front.  Russia, Assad’s key ally in the UN, may finally be throwing in the towel on his regime:

Russia’s top diplomat held a hurried private discussion Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the U.N. envoy for Syria about the 20-month-old civil war in the country that is Russia’s closest Middle East ally.

The meeting is a sign that Russia may be reconsidering support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, purely as a practical response to his weakening military position. Until now, Russia has rejected U.S. and other calls to abandon Assad and has appeared to think that he can defeat the rebels and keep his government intact.

Russia has been the chief international defender of Assad’s regime, a military and trade partner, and the main obstacle to tougher U.N. action to pressure him to end the war and step aside. No decisions emerged from Thursday’s three-way discussion, but a State Department official said the talks had been constructive. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, said the group was seeking a “creative” solution to the Syria crisis.

The meeting came amid fresh concerns that a desperate Assad might resort to using chemical weapons against the rebels or civilians. Clinton would not directly address reports that Assad’s army has prepared deadly sarin gas for delivery by missile.

The best creative solution might be an extraction of Assad and his clique from Damascus as soon as possible, and an international force to remain in place to allow for a peaceful transition to democracy.  A sudden departure followed by a power vacuum will produce a Hezbollah-run state, just as the same kind of power vacuum created the situations we currently face in Libya and Egypt.


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Thermobaric bombs could probably do wonders, given that fire is what was used to dispose of the American chemical weapon supply.

Steve Eggleston on December 7, 2012 at 9:55 AM

It would take out most of it but the press would be sure to magnify the collateral damage to the local civilian populations.

chemman on December 7, 2012 at 11:17 AM

SWalker on December 7, 2012 at 10:44 AM

That’s only true for pure, silicate sands. Even Sahara Desert has few of those. Most natural sand deposits contain significant fraction of iron, intense brown-reddish color of which should overcome the green tint of chromium. However, I’m willing to conduct a test anywhere in Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan; our European allies will certainly appreciate the scientific importance of such experiment.

Archivarix on December 7, 2012 at 10:54 AM

Ummm, no, pure silicate sands do not turn green they turn metallic grey/silver or clear. Those “TESTS” have been repeatedly conducted throughout the state of Nevada. However, in the purest interests of science of course, I would be more than willing to repeat them in Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan for the purpose of determining if the trace mineral composition of the sands in Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan would produce a different result.

SWalker on December 7, 2012 at 11:19 AM

Just as generous as you are on welfare projects, liberal troll.

MelonCollie on December 7, 2012 at 11:00 AM

By wanting to eliminate all entitlement programs and taxation, and in fact, desiring to see government completely eliminated?

Your ignorance is astounding.

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 11:27 AM

This would be humorous were it not so serious:

1.) We know where those “WMD”s came from (Iraq thanks to Turkey),
2.) Syria is none of our business,
3.) Let our former ally, the Turks, deal with it,
4.) The Israelis are ready, let ‘em have at it,
5.) IF the World requests OUR help, let THEM pay for it,
6.) If not, then STFU and GTFO, Pharaoh Barry.

/factualrant
~(Ä)~

Karl Magnus on December 7, 2012 at 11:35 AM

That’s the problem with setting “red lines” publicly.

This is actually the problem inherent to any form of democracy.

Set a line, cave, the people will punish you at the voting booth (in theory, or course). This cause/effect actually hamstrings democracies at the negotiating table by severely limiting their ability to bluff.

It’s much easier for the Ahmadenijad’s, Saddam’s and Mao’s of the world to simply make declarative statements, safe in the knowledge that they will not be peacefully removed from power by the people.

Washington Nearsider on December 7, 2012 at 11:37 AM

By wanting to eliminate all entitlement programs and taxation, and in fact, desiring to see government completely eliminated?

Your ignorance is astounding.

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 11:27 AM

That is mighty trusting of human nature. A brand of human nature that hasn’t asserted itself over the past 5-10 thousand years we can reasonably research. So I would be careful about brandishing the term ignorant.

chemman on December 7, 2012 at 11:38 AM

The Israelis disagree, and have their own contingencies for taking out the chemical weapons before Hezbollah gets their hands on them. “We’re willing to do it,” an Israeli official told the NYT, “probably more willing than the Americans.”

But…. but…. Didn’t they see Leon Panetta’s dreaded harshly worded letter ™? That ought to scare Assad into submission. ~s

If anything, President Pantywaist will probably just send a few drones over to bomb the place.

UltimateBob on December 7, 2012 at 11:39 AM

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 10:14 AM

You’re an idiot.

Consider that.

Solaratov on December 7, 2012 at 11:41 AM

4. Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, is where that info needs to go. It has nothing to do with the true capitol is, but rather where certain offices are.
M240H on December 7, 2012 at 10:28 AM

;-)

Solaratov on December 7, 2012 at 11:47 AM

No, that would be me rejecting your premise and then your trying to put words in my mouth.

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 10:31 AM

Which would you being too much of a coward to say what you ‘imply’.

So…in addition to being an idiot, you’re a coward.

Solaratov on December 7, 2012 at 11:51 AM

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 10:31 AM

I’m not sure of your age, but let’s get away from hypotheticals.

When the Soviets placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, with consent from both states, was the US right to demand their removal with threat of military force?

Washington Nearsider on December 7, 2012 at 11:58 AM

M240H on December 7, 2012 at 10:28 AM

Sounds like you’re more of a foreign policy tool than a defender of the Constitution and Republic.

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 10:50 AM

Yes. To a coward it might sound like that.

Solaratov on December 7, 2012 at 11:59 AM

And so I don’t put words in your mouth, please confine your initial answer to ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

I’d be happy to read your explanation beneath either word, but would like an actual answer before all of that.

Washington Nearsider on December 7, 2012 at 11:59 AM

Michael Ledeen has sources that say hezblahblah already has control of Syrian chemical weapons. Both sides in the Libyan c-war are okay with that because it means the chemical weapons will only be used on The Juice.

It’s Syria’s biological weapons that should worry us far more.

slickwillie2001 on December 7, 2012 at 12:04 PM

The best creative solution might be an extraction of Assad and his clique from Damascus as soon as possible, and an international force to remain in place to allow for a peaceful transition to democracy.

That’s nonsense.

Isn’t it time we evaluate what’s going on in the middle east based on the facts on the ground rather than some fantastical storyline contrived at the outset of what amounted to an utterly failed attempt by a few to bring some level of democracy to traditionally Islamic states?

BKeyser on December 7, 2012 at 12:10 PM

The Syrian Jihad forces already have chemical weapons. Is Mohammad Obama cool with that whole bunch of stuff an his calculus?

Hening on December 7, 2012 at 12:15 PM

To misquote Vasco de Gama, “kill them all, and let Allah sort his flock”.

Archivarix on December 7, 2012 at 11:02 AM

Actually, the phrase comes from Amal Ulric at the end of the siege of Beziers (as his men prepared to sack the town) during the Albegensian crusade….

“Neca eos omnes. Deos suos agnoscet.”

“Kill them all. God will know his own.”

[Kill'em all. Let God sort'em out.]

Solaratov on December 7, 2012 at 12:37 PM

Yes. To a coward it might sound like that.

Solaratov on December 7, 2012 at 11:59 AM

You’re going to have to give Dante a break. He has heard much of this magical spell called “The Logic” but hasn’t yet learned to cast it (it keeps backfiring on him and doing strange things it wasn’t supposed to). He still believes in magical Unicorns farts, faerie and pixie dust and his +100 staff of power.

SWalker on December 7, 2012 at 1:27 PM

ahhh flexibility…you can say whatever you want but the words don’t have meaning when you say something different later…it’s gonna be a long, long 4 years…

RedInMD on December 7, 2012 at 1:41 PM

I bet Barry’s girls walk all over him.

tommer74 on December 7, 2012 at 2:09 PM

When the Soviets placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, with consent from both states, was the US right to demand their removal with threat of military force?

Washington Nearsider on December 7, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Hmm…I wonder what led them to do that? Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose sound familiar? Seems somewhat similar to Iran today; US provocation, including open warfare and open talks of military strikes, leads a country to seek means to defend itself from aggression.

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 2:32 PM

That’s nonsense.

Isn’t it time we evaluate what’s going on in the middle east based on the facts on the ground rather than some fantastical storyline contrived at the outset of what amounted to an utterly failed attempt by a few to bring some level of democracy to traditionally Islamic states?

BKeyser on December 7, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Isn’t it better to ignore it and mind our own business?

Dante on December 7, 2012 at 2:47 PM

Take a minute to sit and ponder this jewel:

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet is Islam “. Sept. 25/12, President Barack Hussein Obama, speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations

What the hell does that even mean?

can_con on December 7, 2012 at 3:27 PM

The best creative solution might be an extraction of Assad and his clique from Damascus as soon as possible, and an international force to remain in place to allow for a peaceful transition to democracy.

Cause Assad is just a member of a tiny fringe group who have hijacked a noble Muslim country?

And Ed, you forgot the “transparent” part of the transition to democracy and also the rights for women and other minority critters. If you are promoting western fantasy get the lingo right.

BL@KBIRD on December 7, 2012 at 3:59 PM

A sudden departure followed by a power vacuum will produce a Hezbollah-run state, just as the same kind of power vacuum created the situations we currently face in Libya and Egypt.

Hizballah-run state: no.
Situation you’re facing in Libya: yes. Less so than the situation in Egypt, even though Syria has a strong and old presence of the Egyptian brotherhood.

Hizballah will be one of the biggest losers if Assad falls.

Any post-Assad option is net-positive, even if Syria turns into Libya, which it won’t because it’s not as big, and its society is more modern than Libya’s.

AlexB on December 7, 2012 at 4:46 PM

So, if you are Israel, how secure do you feel that Obama now says the red line is AFTER the WMD has been used?????

georgealbert on December 7, 2012 at 6:03 PM

“Don’t call my bluff, Bashar!” – Øbama the Bologna Sammich

ExpressoBold on December 7, 2012 at 6:09 PM

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet is Islam “. Sept. 25/12, President Barack Hussein Obama, speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations

What the hell does that even mean?

can_con on December 7, 2012 at 3:27 PM

.
Translation: “I am a Muslim.” – Øbama the Ham Bologna Sammich.

ExpressoBold on December 7, 2012 at 6:13 PM

The best least creative solution might be an extraction of Assad and his clique from Damascus as soon as possible, and an international American force to remain in place to allow for a peaceful deadly transition to democracy full blown shariah.

VorDaj on December 7, 2012 at 6:53 PM

Take a minute to sit and ponder this jewel:

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam “. Sept. 25/12, President Barack Hussein Obama, speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations

What the hell does that even mean?

can_con on December 7, 2012 at 3:27 PM

It sounds like a Chicago death threat as the only way you don’t have a future is if you are dead.

VorDaj on December 7, 2012 at 6:56 PM

Is that it? Reagan chumped the Russian Communists into destroying their economy over Star Wars and their Afghan Conflict and now we create our our debt suicide and capitulate to the Russians because what, we’re scared of them again.

What happened to my country?

hawkdriver on December 7, 2012 at 8:46 PM

NYT: Obama retreating on “red line” for Syrian chemical weapons

…H E L L O…!!!
…A N Y B O D Y…!!!
…………….where did they get THOSE CHEMICAL WEAPONS…???

KOOLAID2 on December 7, 2012 at 9:05 PM

December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy…

A date which will live in — Infamy?

Not if you’re HotAir.com — or Google — or Yahoo.

HotAir.com posts NOTHING on Pearl Harbor Day to commemorate the horrific Japanese surprise attack on the American Naval Fleet in port at Pearl Harbor leaving 2,402 Americans killed and 1,282 Americans wounded — many of them civilians.

Pathetic.

This website has gone to crap ever since Michelle Malkin sold out to the highest bidder.

HotAir.com — Guaranteed Soft & SquishyOr Your Money Back

FlatFoot on December 7, 2012 at 11:38 PM

The Times’ story and presumably the administration’s (is there a difference?) seems to weasel away from military action because attacking the the transporters of the weapons might cause contamination of our ally, Jordan.

This is a cop out. The target should be Bassar Assad, not the Sarin filled trucks. It’s the guy who pulls the trigger we should be going after. Collateral damage to Jordan in that case might be an arm or a leg landing over the border.

We can live with that.

Corky Boyd on December 8, 2012 at 1:09 AM

HotAir.com posts NOTHING on Pearl Harbor Day to commemorate the horrific Japanese surprise attack on the American Naval Fleet in port at Pearl Harbor leaving 2,402 Americans killed and 1,282 Americans wounded — many of them civilians.

Pathetic.

This website has gone to crap ever since Michelle Malkin sold out to the highest bidder.

HotAir.com — Guaranteed Soft & Squishy™ Or Your Money Back

FlatFoot on December 7, 2012 at 11:38 PM

Surprise attack? I guess so.

How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 8:24 AM

Surprise attack? I guess so.

How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 8:24 AM

What provoked that economic warfare?

Your Blame America First mentality never fails to astound me. In bewtween 1931 to 1937 militarists took over the Japanese leadership. Starting with the Manchurian city of Mukden in 31, they proceded to seize most of their region. Their seven years of Empire building affecting free trade and safe passage throughout the Pacific, Far East, and Southeast Asia and demanded action. The US retaliated with economic measures and in return they tried to destroy our Pacific Fleet in a single attack.

Just freaking ban yourself.

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 10:13 AM

If these Syrian kids are still alive, I’d like to get their thoughts on Obama’s “red lines”….

Obama, The Weak Ass

Resist We Much on December 8, 2012 at 12:55 PM

What provoked that economic warfare?

Well, maybe you should have read the article to learn FDR’s motivations, then you wouldn’t ask such a silly question.

Your Blame America First mentality never fails to astound me. In bewtween 1931 to 1937 militarists took over the Japanese leadership. Starting with the Manchurian city of Mukden in 31, they proceded to seize most of their region. Their seven years of Empire building affecting free trade and safe passage throughout the Pacific, Far East, and Southeast Asia and demanded action. The US retaliated with economic measures and in return they tried to destroy our Pacific Fleet in a single attack.

Just freaking ban yourself.

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 10:13 AM

Interesting. Very interesting. Here is an article that criticizes FDR and his progressive foreign policy, and you equate that criticism with “Blame America,” not blame FDR, but “Blame America”. Why is it you constantly defend progressivist policy, progressivist presidents, and always attack those who are pro-liberty and opposed to progressivism? You are nothing but a statist lapdog.

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 2:56 PM

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 2:56 PM

Weapon of Mass Deflection.

Left Coast Right Mind on December 8, 2012 at 3:41 PM

More on FDR and Pearl Harbor

link

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 3:55 PM

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 2:56 PM

I answered your question and rather than answer him you babble on with more links. What about the emperial Japanese?

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 11:24 PM

I answered your question and rather than answer him you babble on with more links. What about the emperial Japanese?

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 11:24 PM

I didn’t ask a question. I posted a link, two links, in fact, to articles about FDR’s interventionism and war acts that were designed to provoke an attack. You came back with a question that was answered in the first article linked.

Maybe you should read it?

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 11:30 PM

Maybe you should read it?

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 11:30 PM

How about you answer a question about Japan? You blamed US economic sanctions for Pearl. You think they were justified it sounds.

Do you?

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 11:35 PM

PS, I said you posted more inane links from your anti-war propaganda site.

What about Japan?

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 11:36 PM

I didn’t say you asked a question.

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 11:37 PM

I didn’t say you asked a question.

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 11:37 PM

I answered your question and rather than answer him you babble on with more links. What about the emperial Japanese?

hawkdriver on December 8, 2012 at 11:24 PM

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 11:48 PM

Surprise attack? I guess so.

How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 8:24 AM

I answered this question.

Do you forget what you write?

What about Japan?

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 12:02 AM

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 11:33 PM

The progressive nature of FDR is nothing anyone can argue. He was. That has nothing to with the emperialist nature of Japan in the 1930s.

Oh, and you didn’t answer my question, What do they do for me?

Dante on December 8, 2012 at 11:33 PM

I thought you were Constitution Boy. They provide for the common defense.

What exactly would you prefer they do in that regard rather than what they do now?

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 12:11 AM

I thought you were Constitution Boy. They provide for the common defense.

What exactly would you prefer they do in that regard rather than what they do now?

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 12:11 AM

The Constitution doesn’t say the military provides for the common defense; it says “we the people” (well, the people who lived almost 250 years ago, that is) establish a federal government and the Constitution to do so. The people do through the seizure of their property. Regardless, the common defense does not include South Korea, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Germany, etc.

So try again: what do they do for me?

I answered this question.

Do you forget what you write?

What about Japan?

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 12:02 AM

That wasn’t a question. Well, it was a reflexive question asked in surprise, such as when a person repeats the last few words another person has said. The point being that it was not a surprise attack.

Read the articles and quit repeating yourself. Then, after you have read the articles, if you feel the question was unanswered and still appropriate, ask it.

Dante on December 9, 2012 at 12:20 AM

Dante on December 9, 2012 at 12:20 AM

Your fucking BS is tiring. Do you think people don’t unserstand how you evade questions you have no answer for?

You asserted that the US’s economic actions caused japan to attack Pearl. Do you think Japan was justified?

Do you not concede their invasion of Manchurian and rest of the Far East and SouthEast Asia provoked action?

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 12:41 AM

Dante on December 9, 2012 at 12:20 AM

Okay, your “chickenshit” BS (okay moderators?) question evasion gets tiring. I lost a long comment so I’ll be brief.

You asserted the US invited the attack on Pearl because of economic sanctions. You believe Japan was justified?

Do you not think economic sanctions due to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and subsequent areas in the Far East and SouthEast Asia were warranted?

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 12:45 AM

Dante,

You asserted the US invited the attack on Pearl because of economic sanctions. You believe Japan was justified?

Do you not think economic sanctions due to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and subsequent areas in the Far East and SouthEast Asia were warranted?

What would you prefer the US Military be doing now as opposed to what they’ve been doing?

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 12:57 AM

lol, What a coward.

hawkdriver on December 9, 2012 at 1:04 AM

Read the articles, then I’ll be happy to answer your questions if you think they weren’t answered as well as any others. Prove you have some intellectual honesty: read the articles.

Dante on December 9, 2012 at 10:59 AM

Pull the little fool in, what’s wrong with his handlers & puppeteers ? And his 2nd term is only beginning !!

arand on December 9, 2012 at 11:34 AM

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