The problem with Obama’s ‘unscripted’ Syria red line

The problem with Obama’s ‘unscripted’ Syria red line

The New York Times has another huge story on Obama’s "red line" on the Syrian regime’s possible use of chemical weapons, filled with juicy details and anonymous quotes from U.S. officials. One of them, referring to Obama’s initial red-line comments in August, tells the paper:

“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.” 

Another one: 

Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

Ooph. Here’s the problem with those remarks, however. After Obama initially laid down his red line — the key words of which were "a whole bunch" — various administration officials repeated them, sometimes losing the qualifier entirely. Here, for instance, is Vice President Joe Biden on March 4:

Because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use or the transfer of the those weapons.

And here’s Obama 17 days later:

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 by Friday, April 26, the qualifier was back. "A whole bunch" had become "systematic," as my colleague Josh Rogin noted:

Obama said that if the use of chemical weapons is proven, "it is going to be a game changer," and added that the world cannot stand by and permit the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."

So the nuance — only the use or transfer of "a whole bunch" of chemical weapons would trigger a U.S. response — was in Obama’s original comments. It disappeared, and then it returned as "systematic."

What’s going on here? I suspect that the United States wants to deter Bashar al-Assad from launching a mass-casualty attack using chemical weapons, but isn’t prepared to make him pay a real price for smaller-scale incidents. U.S. officials often insist that the president doesn’t bluff. But I’m not so sure about that, and it seems Assad is willing to call him on it.