In his interview with Secretary Kerry on Meet the Press, David Gregory summarized the criticism he said Kerry had undoubtedly confronted in his travels throughout the Middle East:
And let me sum it up this way. It amounts to this criticism that the President appears reluctant to exercise power on the world stage. It’s not just Israel. It’s Egypt. It’s Saudi Arabia. There’s a feeling that the U.S. has abandoned critical friends in that region, in part because you’re moving toward a deal with Iran which could provide them tremendous economic relief when, at the same time, critics would say their major client, Syria, has gotten a pass to murder their own people as long as they don’t use chemical weapons, so that all of this is amounting to this reluctance to really exercise U.S. power.
Kerry responded that he “couldn’t disagree with [that criticism] more,” citing President Obama’s response to Syria:
He decided to use military force in Syria. He also made a decision to respect the requests of many members of Congress to come to them. And guess what? When he did, it was the members of Congress … who balked very significantly. … The President, before he had to make a decision of whether or not he would use force anyway, succeeded in getting an arrangement with Russia to remove the chemical weapons altogether. That would never have happened — that deal would never have come about if the President had not made his decision to use force.
What actually happened regarding Syria? The president repeatedly ignored his own red line; when finally forced to respond, his proposed response was a “shot across the bow”; after he purportedly “decided” on the shot, he threw the question over to Congress (with an assurance it was not time-sensitive so Congress need not interrupt its vacation to consider it); and after it was obvious he could not convince Congress, he accepted a Russian “reset,” leaving Assad in power and Iran’s position in Syria significantly strengthened.
If Kerry thinks this represents an example of American power, perhaps the Iranians should throw the Brooklyn Bridge into the deal he is currently negotiating with them; they may have found a buyer.
In the Gregory interview, Kerry repeatedly said that “the president has taken no option off the table” — an assurance that has now been repeated almost as many times as the one about keeping your insurance. The American people now know an Obama assurance is not worth the policy it is written on. As does Iran, having learned the same lesson as it watched Obama retreat from an equally clear assurance regarding Syria.
Obama’s Syrian red line declaration has commonly been considered “an ill-considered-rhetorical statement,” but it was much more than a rhetorical remark. In the August 20, 2012 press conference in which he made it, Obama was pressed about it, and said this:
We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. (Emphasis added)
When the president of the United States says he has already communicated “with every player in the region,” and done so “in no uncertain terms,” warning them there will be “enormous consequences” if we “start seeing” the use of chemical weapons, he is not speaking extemporaneously or rhetorically. He is announcing a policy already adopted, and already communicated to every country in the region, in terms that admit no ambiguity. Call it “all options on the table” squared.
The “red line” was not an off-teleprompter gaffe. On the contrary, here is what actually happened: In July 2012, senior U.S. intelligence officials briefed top members of Congress on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in a small-scale attack. In mid-August — the weekend before Obama announced his red line — the U.S. received alarming intelligence reports suggesting Assad might be preparing to use chemical weapons again. The White House held a series of meetings and devised a plan to deter Assad, sending him a clear message through Russia and Iran about the red line. Obama’s announcement at his subsequent press conference was a public statement of private messages already sent. And the message was as clear as “you can keep your policy if you like it.”
Seven months later, on March 19, 2013, there was a sarin gas attack in an Aleppo suburb. There was another one on April 13 in a different neighborhood of Aleppo, and another one May 14 in the town of Qsar Abu Samra, north of Homs. Obama not only did not act, but dramatically redefined his prior remarks.
Asked at his May 16, 2013 press conference about his red line and whether he would now take “more initiative” to effectuate his policy that “Assad must go,” Obama responded as follows:
With respect to what I’ve said in the past around red lines — what I’ve said is that the use of chemical weapons are something that the civilized world has recognized should be out of bounds. … [M]y intention is to make sure that we’re presenting everything that we know to the international community … for the international community to put all the pressure that they can on the Assad regime, and to work with the opposition to bring about that political transition. … But it’s not going to be something that the United States does by itself. (Emphasis added)
The “enormous consequences” promised on August 20, 2012, turned out to be a promise to report Assad to the “international community,” together with a statement the U.S. would not act on its own. Obama’s comments effectively provided a green light to any “players in the region” who might have worried about a U.S. response.
In the two weeks following Obama’s May 13 remarks, there was another attack in the eastern part of Damascus, and Iran and Hezbollah dramatically escalated their involvement in Syria on behalf of Assad.