The historical account of Obama’s Syrian chemical weapons red line offered by the New York Times is incomplete at best, and downright misleading at worst. Based on interviews with unnamed Obama aides, the account claims that the president’s use of the “red line” phrase was unscripted, unduly constraining, and was perhaps mistakenly drawn from election-year conversations about Iran.
Yet as I showed yesterday in, “The Frightening Truth About Syria’s WMDs,” the “red line” phrase was in constant public discussion with respect to Syria’s chemical weapons in the weeks before Obama’s initial drawing of the line. Not only that, but a Defense Department spokesman publicly called chemical weapons use by Syria a “serious red line” more than a month before Obama first did so himself. So the notion that Obama’s initial “red line” remark was an unscripted error that simply mixed up talk about Iran with Syria is unconvincing. The administration had already drawn a public red line on Syrian chemical weapons use a month before Obama spoke, using precisely those words.
While the Times story does note that in December of 2012 intelligence indicated more disturbing activity at Syria’s chemical-weapons sites, it neglects to recount a critical repetition of Obama’s red-line remarks at that time. This time, Obama’s remarks were clear and unequivocal: “And today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable.”
Not only were these strong and apparently carefully scripted words used by Obama, but similar statements were made on the same day by White House spokesman Jay Carney and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Chemical-weapons use, said Hillary, “is a red line for the United States.” Hillary Clinton reiterated the red line phrase again on December 5.
If Obama’s initial use of the “red line” phrase on in August of 2012 was actually a mistake (which I find doubtful for reasons stated above), the administration could have backed off. But in early December of 2012, they doubled down on the “red line” threat with a fully coordinated set of statements.
This makes the Times account incomplete at best, and downright misleading at worst. Obama cannot put down his red-line remarks to regrettable error. The motivations I suggest in “The Frightening Truth About Syria’s WMDs” are more likely. Obama drew his red line under pressure from his humanitarian hawks (and his own humanitarian hawkish inclinations) without thinking through the consequences.