“First of all, I didn’t set a red line.” — President Barack Obama, September 4, 2013
Even my five-year-old son doesn’t make as many destructive verbal gaffes as President Obama does (though he does lie about them afterwards just about as often).
Cases in point:
And now there is Syria, where Obama’s unscripted August 2012 “red line,” according to the New York Times, came as a “surprise [to] some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the ‘red line’ came from.”
Syrian president Bashar al Assad, being a much better poker player than Barack Obama is, understood two things about the “red line”: It was a free pass to kill civilians in any other way, and it was a free pass to test the U.S. resolve about the mass murder of civilians more generally. If the U.S. were willing to let 120,000 innocents be slaughtered by the Syrian government, it’s hard to imagine they would get too upset about 1,400 more even if it were done with sarin gas.
Despite the administration’s current froth and Obama’s assertion that something must be done, Assad was fundamentally right.
While asking for congressional support for an attack on Syria, a cynical ploy to be bailed out of the corner he had painted himself into, Obama — who routinely forgets that words matter — is selling his intended action as “limited” and “proportionate.”
But at the risk of sounding like John “bomb, bomb Iran” McCain, what significant purpose would be served by a “limited, proportionate” strike, and what exactly does “proportionate” mean? Proportionate to the largest chemical attack of the Syrian civil war, or proportionate to the chemical attack being responsible for less than one percent of the war’s total civilian casualties so far?
Assad now knows with certainty, although he surely suspected it before, that Barack Obama is one of those people at the poker table who bluffs too often, or stays in with weak cards. This is not to say the bluffer doesn’t win the occasional hand. But bluffers are transparent, and good players view them as easy marks. Indeed, a good player will sometimes let the weaker player win an occasional small hand just to keep him at the table.
The American military mission’s confusion was laid bare by General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said on Tuesday, “I have never been told to change the momentum. I have been told to degrade capability.”
Again, what exactly does that mean? Is it even theoretically possible to degrade Assad’s capability without impacting momentum in the civil war? Or does it depend on what the definition of “change” is? Let’s ask the definitionally-challenged Secretary of Explaining Stuff whose wife and future presidential candidate came out Tuesday in support of Obama’s ill-defined strike on Syria. (But then what difference at this point does that make?)
I’d like to ask General Dempsey: If you’re trying to send a message but not make a substantial impact other than on Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities, do you stop at cruise missile number 97 or number 98?
This is either Mission Impossible or Mission Irrelevant. And Dempsey knows it.
The general is being a good soldier and mostly avoiding the political aspects of the debate. But with messages as mixed as those he is both receiving and sending, it is no surprise that when asked by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) “What is it you’re seeking?” Dempsey responded “I can’t answer that.”
During a Wednesday press conference in Stockholm, Sweden, President Obama — who realizes the damage done by his “red line” ad lib — offered this remarkable bit of revisionist history: “First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line… Congress set a red line (by passing the Syria Accountability Act.)”
Former CIA Director, General Michael Hayden, speaking on Fox News shortly afterward, gave this response: “I’m a native English speaker. I saw the press conference last August. I think he did set a red line. He might have been able to say he’s not the only one to have set a red line. But there’s no question that he set a red line. He made it personal. And he actually committed the United States, almost explicitly, to action should that red line be crossed.”
The president’s revisionism was previewed on Tuesday by Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry, addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “Now some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s ‘red line.’ I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.” And Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) read from the same script: “Humanity drew the red line, not President Obama.”
Beyond the bald-faced “not my red line” lie, what about the conscience of someone who does not want to get involved in a Sunni-Shi’a death match playing out in Syria, or who does not want to add hundreds of millions of dollars, just for starters, to the debt this administration has piled on the backs of our children?
Obama in Stockholm also tried to simultaneously rope in Congress and our unwilling allies: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.” Again, Obama hopes that a gullible public and our representatives, and far less gullible foreign leaders at this week’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, will buy his nonsense.
John Kerry, like Obama, also aimed to shift responsibility from our loose-talking president to Congress: “This debate is also about Congress’s own red line: You, the United States Congress, agreed to the chemical weapons convention. You, the United States Congress, passed the Syria Accountability Act which says Syria’s chemical weapons are quote ‘threaten (sic) the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States.’”
Unfortunately, some muddle-headed Republicans have bought into those arguments and are supporting a U.S. attack on Syria out of fear of losing American credibility. On Monday’s edition of CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) put it this way: “The president of the United States committed us when he drew the red line. So the idea that we should or we shouldn’t strike, I think that ship sailed a long time ago if we want to keep the credibility of the United States.”
The issue of “credibility” is and will remain the subject of much debate, but a few brief thoughts:
In an unwitting demonstration of just how weak the case for action in Syria is, President Obama put it this way on Wednesday: “We may not be directly imminently threatened by what’s taking place in a Kosovo, or a Syria, or a Rwanda in the short term. But our long-term national security will be impacted in a profound way and our humanity is impacted in a profound way.” Hardly a compelling call to arms.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the credibility argument for an attack, perhaps still the best card in an extremely weak hand, is being made substantially by Republicans like Congressman Grimm. The Obama administration can’t make it without highlighting the fact that credibility is only at stake because of the president’s loose lips, but they are nevertheless trying because nothing else is working.
And therein lies the core problem for the United States. Our nation is led, and I use that term very loosely, by a man who thumps his chest and makes pronouncements without regard to the unintended but predictable consequences, who believes that his aura and charisma will cause lions to lie down with lambs, and who is utterly incapable of taking responsibility for his own failures.
There are not, by Obama’s own admission, imminent vital American interests in Syria. Republicans would do well to vote “no” on an American military strike despite Assad’s evil: such a vote would be both good policy and good politics, keeping us out of a pointless mini-war while letting our loudmouth president simmer in his own fetid foreign policy stew and making him the lamest of lame ducks.
Unfortunately, on Wednesday evening, the first step toward a Republican cave-in began with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approving, on a 10-7 vote, a resolution in support of a U.S. military strike on Syria. Republican votes for the measure included ranking member Corker, Jeff Flake (AZ), and John McCain (AZ) who earlier in the day had made news by saying he was opposed to the resolution’s restrictiveness. According to Fox News, “McCain ultimately won tougher language clarifying that U.S. policy would be aimed at changing the momentum on the ground,” in direct contradiction to General Dempsey’s marching orders. Potential GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio (FL) and Rand Paul (KY) voted against the resolution, along with three other Republicans and two Democrats.
McCain’s modifications reduce the chance of a substantially “limited” action, at least as its being sold to the nation by Jean-François Kerry and his boss, while also interfering in the executive branch’s constitutional authority to conduct a war once authorized by Congress. It takes a special kind of Republican former presidential candidate to make us think that, at least in this situation, he might have been no better than our current incompetent commander-in-chief.
No matter what happens with American action in Syria, the real lesson here — one which our narcissistic president will certainly not learn, especially if Republicans bail him out by supporting an attack — is that in the future Barack Obama needs to muzzle himself before he causes more racial turmoil, sex offenders going free, or unnecessary U.S. involvement in someone else’s war. Nothing would enhance this president’s credibility like a good long period of him keeping his mouth shut.