There are many important considerations regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria but the media has (as usual) overly simplified matters by raising the “red line.” This is not a matter, as has been portrayed in some media accounts, of Obama having committed himself to military action if Syria used chemical weapons and crossed a red line. John Kerry stated that the decision to go to war was not over crossing Obama’s red line in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (a place where he has been often, from testifying in 1971 as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War to his days on the committee, culminating with becoming chairman in 2009). Obama repeated this today.
Obama did not claim there was a red line which would automatically lead to war in 2012. In response to a question at press conference Obama said: “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. That would change my equation.” It makes sense that this would change his calculus and lead to the consideration of options he was not considering at the time, but he did not commit to going to war.
While I am skeptical of the remaining arguments for taking military action, it is good to see Obama clearly say that preserving his credibility over the red line is not a reason to go to war. Feeling obligated to take military action based upon a comment made at a press conference would certainly be foolish.
Obama is now saying that any red line is the world’s red line against the use of chemical weapons. I agree with his condemnation of their use. I do not agree that we are the world’s policeman or obligated to act when there are no bodies involved in international law which are willing to act. We certainly are not obligated to take military action when it is not clear how this would actually achieve positive ends.
It is debatable whether the term “red line” should have been used at all but it is difficult for a president whose every word is recorded to never say anything which might be questioned. This was far less a problem than George Bush speaking of the “axis of evil” during his State of the Union Address in 2002.
Obama is also receiving criticism for not rushing to make a decision regarding Syria, and possibly changing his mind. These, along with the decision to go to Congress, are positive attributes. In a situation where, regardless of where one stands with regards to the use of military force, there is no imminent threat to the United States, the Commander in Chief can and should take the time to consider all the options, and consequences of such actions. The reaction, and lack of support, from the international community, many members of Congress, and the American people are all valid considerations. Wouldn’t we have come out better if Lyndon Johnson had decided to reverse his decision and get out of Viet Nam? The war in Viet Nam certainly did show the consequences of engaging in a war after losing the support of the American people.