The PJ Tatler

Red Line Gaslight

How could President Obama possibly and with a straight face come out and say that he didn’t set a “red line” on Syria? How could he do this?

OBAMA: 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% 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.  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.

In August 2012, he did set a “red line.” Clearly and unambiguously.

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OBAMA: We have been very clear, not only to the Assad regime but 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. That would change my equation. (emphasis added)

It’s obviously not the case that Obama just forgot what he said a year ago. He quoted himself from his own red line statement, when he climbed down from that statement. It’s also obvious that he isn’t speaking in ignorance of international law. So how can he deny that he set a red line, when he did, and he knows that he did?

If you’re not familiar with the term “gaslighting,” get familiar with it. It’s from an old movie in which a despicable husband uses a gaslight to slowly make his wife believe that she is going insane.

The term itself was popularized by the 1944 film Gaslight, an adaptation of the 1939 play Angel Street. In the film, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, “Gregory,” played by Boyer, maintains that a gaslight his wife “Paula” (Bergman) sees growing dim then brightening is in fact steady. This small deception is followed by countless others. Paula initially protests her husband’s accusations about her “forgetfulness,” but in time she questions her every action and memory. In reality, her husband Gregory is plotting to have her committed to an asylum so that he can take her inheritance.

Today it’s a psychological term for a specific species of mental abuse.

In his red line denial, Obama left just enough meat on the bone for the likes of Chuck Todd to come out and defend what was a brazen lie — and blame Republicans for it!  It’s true, you see, that there are international conventions against the use of chemical weapons. It’s true that the world generally opposes the use of chemical weapons. But it’s true that Barack Obama specifically made the use of chemical weapons in Syria his red line. And it’s true that he now wants us all to be convinced that he didn’t, because that year-old statement is causing him problems today.

He’s flickering the gaslight at us to extricate himself from a trap of his own making.