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Belmont Club

The Thin Red Line

April 25th, 2013 - 12:40 pm

Chemical weapons — the ‘red line’ which President Obama said he would so resolutely oppose — have emerged in Syria.  Blood tests have confirmed the exposure of patients in hospitals to these weapons. Readers will recall that President Obama issued a stern warning against their use. Now they’ve been used. The problem is now how ignore them. The National Journal’s article is headlined: “Obama Is Looking for Reasons to Delay Response to Syria’s Chemical Weapons Use.”

It would seem to add up to certain U.S. military action: On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed the findings of a White House letter to congressional leaders that said the United States now believes “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin.” That finding appears to be a direct violation of the “red line” for action that President Obama set last year and which he reaffirmed last month, when on a trip to Israel he declared that “the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”

In truth, the same game is still going on, and the administration appears to be equivocating over a response while all the “facts” are established. “We want to continue to investigate above and beyond those intelligence estimates,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday afternoon, in order to gain “a definitive judgment for whether a red line has been crossed.”

The probable truth is that Obama was never prepared to take any large scale action against Syria for any reason any more than he is prepared to stop the Iranian nuclear bomb. Damascus has now called his bluff so the challenge is to find some way to run while seeming to keep the field.

Foreign Policy has found the administration’s probable exit route. It notes that while Obama appeared to draw a “red line” in reality he did not. Like any lawyer he inserted a qualifier into his ultimatum that really renders it a penultimatum or a pen-penultimatum or a pen^i-penultimatum where i is an index > 1 but less than infinity.  The exit word is “a whole bunch”. Assad has to violate the warning a “whole bunch” of times, which can be 1, 10, 100, 1000 — it’s all up to the President.

The White House has long insisted that President Barack Obama’s “red line” that would trigger … something … on Syria is crystal clear.

But as my Washington Post colleague Max Fisher notes, it’s about as clear as mud. Obama first said in August: “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.”

Many have interpreted this line to mean that if Assad moved or used chemical weapons, Obama would act. And on several occasions, the president or other U.S. officials have made more aggressive statements. Here’s Obama on March 21:

I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.

But it seems to me that the key words in Obama’s August statement were “a whole bunch.” And if you read between the lines of the White House’s letter to several senators today, that still seems to be the real red line, assuming it actually exists, because the letter stresses that the purported use in question was, or may have been, “on a small scale.”

The administration has proved itself among the most intellectually flexible in history.  Time after time it has demonstrated the capacity of making words mean anything at all such that its solemn declarations are almost indistinguishable from throwaway remarks. Susan Rice tirelessly told anyone who would listen that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was about a video, until it wasn’t.  Or maybe it was once when the intelligence estimate was ‘evolving’ but now we know that State and the White House went so far as to alter the intelligence summary to help it evolve to whatever was required.

Reality may be a moving target to the current administration. Why should anything be definite?

None of this fibbing and boasting would matter much in a grade school child yelling out imprecations in a playground. But when practiced by a great power on consistent basis it undermines one of its most fundamental assets: credibility. Credibility allows a great power to use words in place of actual deeds when warning off an enemy. Credibility is the most precious coinage a great power possesses. To debase it can have more serious results than debasing  money.

For President Obama’s warning to Assad not to cross a “red line” to have any meaning Assad has to believe that the threats implied will actually be carried out. But the opthalmologist of Damascus read his man correctly from the first. He treated Obama as an ineffectual windbag and alas, he may prove right.

Assad has shown you can ignore Obama at no apparent cost

This lesson will not be lost on Iran, North Korea, China or al-Qaeda. It will not be lost on anybody. In fact maybe they knew it already. The boldness with which the young Kim threatens nuclear destruction on America, the apparent ability of jihadists to come and go Chechnya in the face of repeated intelligence warnings all suggest an absolute contempt for ‘red lines’.

In 1997 CNN reporter Peter Bergen traveled to Afghanistan to meet a man named Osama Bin Laden who was in a state of exultation over forcing the retreat of American troops from Somalia. Bin Laden claimed he was behind the Black Hawk down incident and expected the full wrath of Bill Clinton to descend on him. Instead he thought Clinton turned and ran.

“For bin Laden, Somalia was clearly an intoxicating victory. He exulted in the fact that the United States withdrew its troops from the country, pointing to the withdrawal as an example of the weakness, frailty and cowardice of the U.S. troops.”

Clinton had invested American prestige in the UN relief operation in Somalia and Bin Laden had tested him. The Blackhawk down incident resulted not only in the loss of precious human life it resulted in the loss of credibility. It was then that Bin Laden saw a green light. And from then it was nonstop go all the way to September 11, 2001.

The major effect of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was simply to re-establish the fact that there were Red Lines again.  And while many in the Islamic world may have hated America for toppling Saddam there was no question in their minds that it had become serious once more. Whether or not that was a sustainable place to draw a Red Line is a matter for debate. But the fact remains that without such boundaries the world becomes a dangerous place.

Thus US Presidents are normally admonished by hoary old academics  to be very careful and circumspect when drawing “red lines”; to do so only when absolutely necessary because they might be called upon to make their word good. In 1950 the omission of South Korea from a list of “red line” countries was said to have given Kim Il Sung the idea he could invade it with impunity. For years American officials carefully parsed their words when making statements about nuclear deterrence and security commitments. In those days “red lines” were taken seriously.Now it is unclear whether they still mean anything at all.

In the near future we may see a wide variety of provocations launched simply to see how far anyone can push Barack Obama and get away with it. I haven’t a clue where his point of no-retreat is. Perhaps neither does he.


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Top Rated Comments   
BC Alexis said:

"The United States is caught between living up to an ideological opposition to chemical weapons and avoiding becoming a pawn of al-Qaeda ... we need to recognize the obvious – al-Qaeda has effectively taken over the rebellion in Syria."

Connecting the dots: We overthrow the Assad tyranny because they used chemical weapons against their own people. However the group replacing Assad would be Islamic fascists who would inherit Assad's chemical weapons. The Islamic fascists would not hesitate to use these same chemical weapons against use. In essence, we change the situation of Assad using chemical weapons against his own people to Islamic fascists using chemical weapons against us.

Also in my opinion, the American liberation of Iraq was strategically brilliant. Unfortunately, the follow-on occupation of Iraq was badly handled until Petraeus saved the day. Withdrawing from Iraq as Obama did was profoundly stupid.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I fully agree that Obama has badly bungled the Middle East. George W. Bush showed considerable cunning in placing a large American force in the center of the Arab world, i.e. Iraq. Bush made it very clear that the US would respond with immediate military force if there was any misconduct (We had a "big stick" in plain view to keep the bad actors in line). Unfortunately, to appease his liberal base and the MSM, Obama withdrew that military force and created a textbook example of a military vacuum. Anyone with the slightest understanding of history would have seen this coming. Obama after having rendered himself impotent, then showed the amazing stupidity of "drawing red lines".

The damage has already been done by Obama's incompetence. Our enemies are laughing at us. Now we reap the whirl wind.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
" What is Obama supposed to do with regards to Syria? " perhaps it is wisest to do nothing, but in that why pretend you're going to do something.

Obama basically vetoed any large scale action in the Middle East by redeploying to Afghanistan and reducing the military budget. By depriving himself of the means he has essentially circumscribed his scope of action.

Assad knows this as well as anyone, so why be so foolish as to open an umbrella you don't have over the Syrians, of any stripe? Perhaps it was because of political pressure from the humanitarian crowd in his administration. The guys who see chemical weapons as a peculiar kind of horror, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That may have impelled President Obama to draw a Red Line without regard to whether he could enforce it. And now Assad is tweaking his nose -- and in public too.

So should he go in pell-mell for the sake of his face? Or back down some more and encourage more contempt. The choices are bad, but he put himself in that position.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (64)
All Comments   (64)
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Campaigning is easy; Governing is far harder. When you are President, your words actually matter. Obama has not learned this even now.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Herewith part of what I posted below:

We can't do anything useful in Syria. We can't reliably pick the ''moderate'' factions for lots of reasons, we can't be sure they'll stay ''moderate'' if they win, we don't know what ''moderate'' is (as they define it) when they could just be telling us what we want to hear, once they've got the help, arms, equipment and so forth we can't control what they do with it.

Herewith the NYT, Apr 27:

'' ... Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of. ... "
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
When push comes to shove, the liberal meme about equality, humanity and where spirituality resides according to their depraved notions of identity is completely hollow.

Obama will apologize for colonialism making them do it before he intervenes.

Meanwhile, those countries whose religions routinely paint America as a wh-re house with lots of guns, evidently can't even rise to that standard as Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and all the other ducks in a row sit and do nothing.

Liberals and their Islamist allies who whine about ethnic cleansing in Israel and the West Bank need to step up and tell me how many Arab civilians in the West Bank have died since 1968 and compare it to the last 2 years in Syria.

The truth is, when one is addicted to parsing right and wrong by racial identity instead of principle, those simple comparisons are impossible.

For my part, I don't think we should do a thing. You see, liberals have convinced me there are no WMDs and that the whole thing is a fantasy and a conspiracy. Those doctors are probably CIA plants.

We saved how many tens of thousands of Muslim lives in the Balkans? Not only do Muslims never cite this, we got commercial airliners shoved up our backsides according to Islamic one-sided views of history that strip out context in the exact way liberals do. Did the Balkans make bin Laden happy? Hah!

Screw 'em. Screw all of 'em.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
The principal ideological justification – and the only one I have heard – for intervening in Syria is “humanitarian intervention”. “Humanitarian intervention” has been in vogue in liberal circles since Clinton's Balkan adventures in the 1990's; its principal adherent nowadays seems to be John McCain. The press campaign to push the United States into aligning itself with al-Qaeda in Syria looks like a retread of the press campaign to push the United States to intervene in Bosnia and later Kosovo. The stories are the same. The blood theater is the same. The same strategy, the same lines, the same grisly photos. The difference is that neither CNN nor Christiane Amanpour have the power anymore to push the United States into attacking the latest enemy of Sunni jihad.

Whose credibility is it that is at stake here, America's or President Obama's? They are not the same thing. A president's credibility is greatest when he has the full support of Congress and public opinion. There are limits to what a president can do when he gets half-hearted support from Congress, and when Congress cuts off all support, there is little that even the best president can do.

There is little if any support in the United States for helping al-Qaeda conquer Syria, particularly after the latest massacres of Americans in Benghazi and Boston. Members of al-Qaeda should drop dead.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree with formerly Eggplant responding to BC Alexis, with whom I have some agreement. We have no true interests in Syria and the window is closed where we might have, sad to say. Obama has the unique ability of turning this country to ash just by talking and talking and talking.

O/T: grr - this system is maddening. I had to fight my way in past the gate keeper. Urgh!
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
O/T: You should have contacted the Keymaster. Or the Ghostbusters. :P
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Back in the 50s I was ten and sent by my mother to accompany my grandfather, the last of the old cowhands, he was 80, to the store to buy a cabbage.
This was in Vernon, Tx. a town set between the Wagner, Goodnight and Four6s ranches.
Leaving the store with the cabbage in a tow sack, we were walking down the sidewalk when a young, drugstore cowboy, my grandfathers words, charged out of a door in front of us and bumped into grandpa.
"Watch where you're going old man."
Before I could register what was happening, the tow sack left my hand, swung in an arc and bashed upside the cowboys head, laying him out cold on the sidewalk.
Across the square was the office of the county sheriff, who happened to be outside and saw the whole incident. He came over, looked at me, grandpa, the tow sack in his hand, and the cowboy. He touched the brim of his hat to my grandpa;
"Afternoon Mr. Adams."
"Afternoon, sheriff."
"What’s in the sack?"
"Cabbage."
"Mind telling me what happened here?"
"This young pup spoke kinda short to me, can't abide that sort of thing. Taught him some manners."
The town of Vernon was just two years older than grandpa, and like most West Texas towns held those old timers to a different standard.
The sheriff sent us on our way.
I'd known that people were always polite to 'Old-timers’' but, it wasn't till then that I had some clue as to why.

I like to think that George Bush, growing up in Texas, absorbed that lesson here, but that’s just local pride; his father surely taught it to him.
If George Bush told any country;
"Do this, or don't do that, because if you do I will take this action."
They believed him.
They knew of a certainty that he would pull the trigger.
It is hard to measure the trouble we were spared by that certainty.
It is a lesson that must be learned early in life I think.
Obama has had four years at the helm and doesn't seem to have grasped it yet.
Bush could certainly tell him, if he had the wit to ask.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Iran is carefully monitoring Obama's reaction. They expect he will do nothing and they will accelerate their nuclear weapons program.

Obama/Biden have achieved a trifecta: Worst foreign poicy, worst energy policy, and worst economic policy EVER.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
As the Former Eggplant observed, Obama was particularly stupid in withdrawing from the base with a friendly ally in Iraq for the phony disagreement on the status of forces agreement. It was so abysmally stupid that he had to have been following a deliberate policy of disengagement. Unfortunately, the US cannot disengage from the islamists. They will follow us and will not stop. His non-policy will end in blood for the ME and for the US and Europe.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
We can't do anything useful in Syria. We can't reliably pick the ''moderate'' factions for lots of reasons, we can't be sure they'll stay ''moderate'' if they win, we don't know what ''moderate'' is (as they define it) when they could just be telling us what they want to hear, once they've got the help, arms, equipment and so forth we can't control what they do with it.

All we can do is help the ''moderates'' then stand back and hope for the best and the only justification for that is we believe (based on what?) they aren't backed by Iran, et al. That's, of course, because they say they aren't, because they're Sunni, backed by Saudi--and we know how committed to democracy the Saudis are.

So: back the non-Shias to the hilt and hope for the best?
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I often think back to what I heard Barry Goldwater say in the mid-80's regarding Nicaragra:

"I have had all kinds of briefings and been given information that most people have not - and I still can't figure out who the good guys are."

In the end it did not matter who the "good guys" were. What mattered was how who we supported fit into the overall Reagan Cold War Strategy of "They lose, we win."

Great powers do not have good guys they support. They have interests they advance.

And the Obama has no idea of what the country's interests' should be - he is only focused on what his own interests are, which largely amount to having to avoid saying, "Okay, I effed up again." at all costs.



51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
'' ... what they want US to hear ... '' (sorry)
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Imagine a world where the chief brain surgeon is elected and the qualifications for running are minimal. A dermatologist with a great PR machine behind him runs for office and wins. But when it comes time to perform brain surgery "Teh Won" understandably freaks out. He has no idea what to do. He only ran for the prestige and perks of the office. The idea of having to actually perform brain surgery in any form or fashion terrifies him. He knows that it is totally beyond him bit he cannot due to his own ego admit that to anyone. And due to that ego which compelled him to run for the office to begin with he cannot delegate the task to anyone who actually is competent to perform the surgery. Nothing gets done.

And that is what we have now for a President in terms of foreign affairs. The patient is ill and the chief surgeon is incompetent, but too vested in his credentials to admit that and pass the task to anyone who is.

The humbug that is the Wizard of Oz is at the helm. And which is it? (1) Obama didn't know he was incompetent for the position, or (2) he knew but the lure of it was too great for him and he just thought he could get through by pretending. Both alternatives are depressing and I can't say which is worst.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Obama was elected by labor unions and everything is going according to plan. He is just frustrated that the total annihilation of the American way has taken so long. He will be taking his victory laps in 2014 and by the end of his term he will be upheld as everything the Left had ever wanted replete with his hagiography being incorporated into the textbooks like Kim Il Sung. I predict right here that 2018 is when they will erect a holiday in his name. Can't wait any longer to rub it in. They'll get the vote because the Mexicans will be reminded of the Chavez I and the Chavez II holidays. It will happen. I will wager on it in BitCoins.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
There is much controversy about Kim's political career before the founding of North Korea, with some sources claiming he was an imposter. Several sources indicate that the Kim Il-sung name had previously been used by a prominent early leader of the Korean resistance.[14] Grigory Mekler, who claims to have prepared Kim to lead North Korea, says that Kim assumed this name while in the Soviet Union in the early 1940s from a former commander who had died.[16] According to Leonid Vassin, an officer with the Soviet MVD, Kim was essentially "created from zero." For one, his Korean was marginal at best; he'd only had eight years of formal education, all of it in Chinese. He needed considerable coaching to read a speech the MVD prepared for him at a Communist Party congress three days after he arrived.[14] Wiki
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
One word - Barry Sotero
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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