Was Obama’s “Red Line” Comment on Syria Improvised?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
May 5 2013 3:16 PM

Does Obama Wish He Could Take Back Syria “Red Line” Comment?

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"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," President Obama first said at an August 20 news conference. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation"

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

When Obama told a group of journalists in August that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to use or move large quantities of chemical weapons it would amount to a “red line” that would “change my calculus,” it sounded like a decisive warning. But some White House advisers were surprised, reports the New York Times in a fascinating look at how an apparently unscripted line is now causing problems for the White House.

The fateful words were uttered after a series of meetings meant to warn Assad against using chemical weapons. “The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” one official explains. In the end, he outlined a clear action that would lead to consequences. Obama was really talking about a chemical attack that would cause huge casualties, but now the administration is faced with a quandary about how to respond to what appear to be recent small-scale uses of chemical weapons. The way in which the “red line” comment has evolved illustrates “the improvisational nature” of Obama’s approach to Syria, according to the Times.

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“I’m not convinced it was thought through,” said Barry Pavel, a former defense policy adviser to Obama who is now at the Atlantic Council. “I’m worried about the broader damage to U.S. credibility if we make a statement and then come back with lawyerly language to get around it.”

Sen. John McCain alluded to the “red line” comment in an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “The red line that the president of the United States [has] was apparently written in disappearing ink,” McCain said. “We need a game-changing action.”

McCain was one of several lawmakers on Sunday to call for more decisive action on Syria. But even those who said the United States is closer than ever to arming the rebels, warned it was easier said than done. "Our problem in who to supply is that some of these groups are strong Islamists, al-Qaida and others," Sen. Patrick Leahy said on NBC. But he added: "If we know the right people to get them, my guess is we'll get [weapons] to them." Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican, also expressed optimism that “we are moving closer to arming the reform-minded pro-Western rebels."

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Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.