There are only two words to describe the New York Times’ explanation of Barack Obama’s red-line dance — smart power. According to anonymous “senior officials” at the White House, Obama’s advisors now claim that they had a precise calculation of what to say about Bashar al-Assad and the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria. As soon as Obama went off the TelePrompter, though, that’s when he crossed them up and drew a red line the White House had not even contemplated.
Or so they claim now:
The origins of this dilemma can be traced in large part to a weekend last August, when alarming intelligence reports suggested the besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. After months of keeping a distance from the conflict, Mr. Obama felt he had to become more directly engaged.
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
As a result, the president seems to be moving closer to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months ago. American officials have even discussed with European allies the prospect of airstrikes to take out Syrian air defenses, airplanes and missile delivery systems, if government use of chemical weapons is confirmed.
In case you’re wondering, this is the same Constitutional-scholar, brightest-guy-in-the-room, I’m-my-own-best-advisor President that assured Americans that he would bring “smart power” into American diplomacy. How smart? For a while, none of these people bothered to run to the New York Times to backpedal immediately — because they thought it had worked. Assad didn’t use chemical weapons for months, and they congratulated themselves for their tough stand.
Now that the red line has blown up in their face, however, “senior advisors” can’t wait to run anonymously to the Gray Lady to explain that it was all a big mistake. Daniel Halper notices this, too:
But if the tough rhetoric “succeeded” for a time, it appears to have backfired in the long-run. Because Syria has now apparently used chemical weapons, and President Obama is not willing to do anything about it.
Obama, though, seems inclined to at least explore intervention as a means to shore up his damaged credibility, rather than just admit that the “red line” rhetoric was empty from the beginning. It might be the first time that a President has ad-libbed us into a war, although let’s hope it doesn’t happen at all.
Just to refresh everyone’s memory, here are my five rebuttals to the arguments for intervention. Note well that I don’t bother to include “salvaging Obama’s credibility” among the positive arguments for intervention, either.