President Obama’s Latest Syria Surprise

“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.” – President Barack Obama, August 2012

With those comments — now known as Obama’s “Red Line” remarks — President Obama appeared to remove any ambiguity about his foreign policy. If Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad uses chemical weapons, he seemed to say, we will respond.

Obama’s advisers were surprised by his choice of words. According to a May New York Times article, the phase “red line” was used “…to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the ‘red line’ came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.”

President Obama Press Conference 2011

His phrase was a classic seven-second stray, albeit one with greater consequences than most. It was unscripted and unplanned, memorable and definite. With those words, Mr. Obama placed himself in a geopolitical box, reducing his number of palatable options.

Fast forward a year to last Friday, when Secretary of State John Kerry offered a rather unambiguous statement: “After a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war,” Kerry said. “Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

With those words, Kerry sent a strong message on behalf of the Administration: The red line has been crossed, and the United States is prepared to act. Kerry’s message was so clear, in fact, that Saturday’s media coverage reflected the inevitability of military strikes.


Washington Post Syria Front Page


But then on Saturday afternoon, President Obama changed his mind — or “flinched,” as some pundits called it. During a walk with his chief of staff the evening before (and after Great Britain’s parliament voted down military action), Obama changed his plan. Before ordering military strikes, he would ask Congress to authorize military action against Syria.

His abrupt about-face surprised his senior team once again, confused and angered allies, and potentially emboldened opponents.

Mr. Obama’s handling of this issue leaves him in a dangerous place. If Congress fails to authorize military action, President Obama will either have to follow through on his “red line” threat without legislative approval or respect Congress’s “no” vote and break his promise. If Congress does authorize military action, he may be forced to engage in a military action he appears to be at least somewhat ambivalent about.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing Mr. Obama’s end point. Consulting with Congress might have been the right move all along. But by telegraphing something entirely different — only to change his mind at the last minute — he risks looking indecisive, at best, if not outright rudderless.