The Thin Red Line

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.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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