The three key words of Obama’s ‘red line’ on Syria

The three key words of Obama’s ‘red line’ on Syria

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."

And even if the White House does go ahead and decide that Obama’s murky, pinkish-reddish-orange line has in fact been crossed, it doesn’t seem prepared to do much about it. The plan is to press for a United Nations investigation of the alleged chemical-weapons use, not to fire up the B-52s. The odds of Assad letting that happen are extremely low, not to mention the time it would take for an investigation to reach a clear conclusion one way or the other. And even if an investigation does conclude that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its people, does anyone still think Russia and China are going to dump Assad and authorize some kind of response through the U.N. Security Council?

Now, maybe all this murkiness is defensible and sincere, and certainly the American people aren’t clamoring for another U.S. intervention in the Middle East, even though many in Washington are. But the point is, maybe the game hasn’t changed as much as today’s news reports would have us believe.