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In recent weeks, President Obama has worked assiduously to redefine and thereby back away from his earlier statements that Syria’s Assad regime would face grave consequences if it used chemical weapons. The president’s emphatic pronouncements, starting last August, that any such actions would cross a “red line” and be a “game changer” had turned from news-getting one-liners into a major public-relations problem for his administration.
Then, on May 5, The New York Times’ lead article reported the spectacle of unnamed administration officials leaking that the president’s comments were “unscripted.” One anonymous source said “the idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action.”
These White House comments to its favorite media outlet possibly reflected a strategy to downplay the “red line” comment, seemingly even at the president’s short-term expense, in order to minimize longer-term political damage. Or, much worse, the anonymous sources could have been leaking against their own boss, a dangerous sign of instability and dissension within the administration.
The very next day, the White House press spokesman disputed The Times article, insisting that the president’s “red line” assertion had been “deliberate.” As if that were not enough, on Tuesday Obama himself weighed in, describing events in Syria as merely “a perceived crossing of a red line.” Curiously, he then reaffirmed his original August remarks: “I would just point out that there have been several instances during the course of my presidency where I said I was going to do something, and it ended up getting done.” Citing the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi, Obama said ambiguously that he “typically” adhered to his commitments.
This ever-shifting rhetoric is embarrassingly probative of how Obama conducts foreign policy: offhanded and heedless of real-world consequences. The contrast between Obama’s talk and Israel’s recent airstrikes inside Syria could not be clearer.
Israel has said repeatedly, publicly and privately, that any transfer of advanced weapons from Assad to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah would not be tolerated. In January, and then again earlier this month, Israel’s air force enforced its red lines, destroying shipments, purportedly of rockets, destined for Hezbollah and thus possible use against Israel.
The ramifications of Obama’s “red line” debacle extend well beyond the immediate Syrian context. When America’s president speaks, the whole world still listens, friends and foes alike carefully studying the potential implications of his remarks, predicting, for example, from the president’s Syria behavior what they might expect in crises they themselves could face.
Normally, presidents learn quickly the importance of speaking prudently and meaning what they say. Four years into his administration, however, Obama had still not grasped the critical lesson that offhand comments and capricious reversals are costly to presidential credibility and that a reputation for firmness alone can often accomplish more than presidential rhetoric.
Even if one believes, as I do, that his “red line” was wrongly drawn, there is no escaping that, having drawn it and then ignored it, Obama has damaged U.S. credibility.
Unfortunately, however, there is far more at stake here than Obama’s belated education. Even if the White House later takes some retaliatory action, the delay involved will preclude fully repairing the reputational harm to America.
The linkage between Obama’s inaction to date on Syria’s chemical weapons and Israel’s swift response to a crossing of its red line is Iran’s malign involvement in both cases. Obama’s failure to respond to evidence (even if not meeting our courtroom admissibility standards) that Assad’s forces have used a weapon of mass destruction against their own citizens is critically relevant to Iran and its ever-progressing nuclear-weapons program.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his “red line” on Iran last September in his U.N. General Assembly address, just one month after Obama used it concerning Syria. Whatever the Israelis might do about Iran’s nuclear effort, the mullahs in Tehran now have tangible proof that Obama’s warnings are not credible.
Syrian weapons transfers to Hezbollah very likely reflect Iran’s judgment on where such weapons are most needed from Tehran’s perspective. Israel’s attacks, therefore, are actually strikes against Iran, trying to stop the reallocation of resources between two Iranian surrogates.
Iran now understands that Israel has no intention of being left more vulnerable anywhere, whatever emerges from Syria’s chaos.
We can only hope that Obama now realizes the importance of presidential steadfastness and credibility. Even though he almost certainly will not order a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program, Obama might now understand that he should get out of Israel’s way, stop pressuring it not to attack, and allow it to act in self-defense.
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