Let’s take a closer look at Obama’s buck-passing statement in answer to the question of whether a strike against Syria is necessary in order to preserve his credibility after setting a red line:
Let me unpack the question. First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for. And so, when I said, in a press conference, that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There was a reason for it. That’s point number one. Point number two, my credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.
So let me “unpack” Obama’s answer.
“I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”
But in his statement back in August of 2012, Obama unequivocally and undeniably did set a red line. Watch the video, and note especially around 2:07-2:08 when he gestures to himself and says, with emphasis, “us,” and his back-and-forth use of the terms “we,” “us,” and “I” to mean the same thing: himself, or his administration with himself in charge. At no point does he cite the international community, except earlier in his statement when he speaks briefly and generally about the international community’s role in a possible eventual transition from the Assad regime to a new government in Syria.
“Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.”
Wrong again. Here’s the text of that Act. It condemned Syria in myriad ways, and called for a bunch of things that would never happen and included no means of enforcement and no additional penalties for Syria if they never happened—such as, for example the demand that Syria should enter into “serious unconditional bilateral negotiations with the Government of Israel in order to realize a full and permanent peace,” and the suggestion that Syria should be banned from the UN Security Council.
The act is mostly concerned with condemning Syria for fostering terrorism and interfering with Lebanon and the Iraq War, and the penalties it lists are limited to restricting aid to and trade with Syria, minimizing diplomacy with Syria, and prohibiting Syrian aircraft from U.S. air space. The only mention of Syria’s chemical weapons in the act is to say that these weapons threaten security, that Syria isn’t party to the international treaties banning them, and that Syria also “should” halt their production (just as it “should” do a lot of other things that we had no way to compel or enforce, and that Obama has no intention whatsoever even now of trying to compel or enforce).
…[M]y credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.
The “international community” never set any red line with Syria regarding chemical weapons, and precedent indicates that the international community will do nothing when chemical weapons are used. After all, Saddam Hussein used them on a large scale in Halabja in 1988 and the response of the international community, was, as they say, “muted.” So the international community’s credibility on this is already nil anyway.
But it’s the phrase “lip service” that leaps out. Here’s the definition of “lip service”: “an avowal of advocacy, adherence, or allegiance expressed in words but not backed by deeds.” But as previously shown, Congress never passed a bill saying it would support bombing any country—Syria or otherwise—that used chemical weapons. Nor did the international community. The international agreements on chemical weapons apply only to countries that are signatory members of those conventions banning them, and there is no provision for enforcing that ban on countries outside such agreements:
The CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) is widely criticized for its failure to ensure adequate compliance; the primary complaints are: (1) its inability to enforce its provisions over countries that have not yet ratified the treaty; (2) its failure to impose its provisions with respect to terrorist groups; and (3) that the OPCW only has power to issue sanctions after a violation is found, but cannot authorize military force.
These criticisms are not particular to the CWC, but to all international treaties, and describes the problems of an international system that is largely based on comity.
Obama is discussing military force, which is completely beyond the treaty’s provisions. So the entire treaty is, in a way, “lip service,” because it depends on a “comity” that is only present in the signatory nations.
Obama either knows all of this and is purposely misrepresenting it in order to mislead the public, or he is ignorant of it. Neither possibility is good, and the choices are a variant of the old “Obama, fool or knave?” question. On domestic issues, Obama’s duplicity and/or ignorance (and/or both) have had some bad consequences so far. In the world community, they might have even worse ones. This is not only about whether or not to attack Syria. It’s about Obama digging a deeper and deeper hole and looking more and more like an ignorant fool.
There are many players on the world stage who wish America harm and who are neither ignorant nor fools, and who would take advantage of the fact that Obama is proving to be a very weak horse indeed. If Obama wishes to speak for the world, he would do well to understand how the world works.