September 6, 2013

Fact Checker: Obama and the 'red line' on Syria's chemical weapons

How can the president say he did not create a 'red line' when his statement last year about a 'red line' is one of the most famous statements of his presidency?

By Glenn Kessler / The Washington Post

"I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

— President Barack Obama, news conference in Stockholm, Sept. 4, 2013

"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."

— Obama, remarks to reporters, August 20, 2012

This is a puzzler. How can the president say he did not create a "red line" when his statement last year about a "red line" is one of the most famous statements of his presidency? We've certainly received many tweets and emails from readers about it.

It's not quite so simple. The "red line" has been rhetorically troublesome for the president ever since he uttered those words about a year ago — apparently to the surprise of his aides. Let's see what the fuss is about.

Obama's initial comment was prompted by this question:

"Mr. President, could you update us on your latest thinking of where you think things are in Syria, and in particular, whether you envision using U.S. military, if simply for nothing else, the safe keeping of the chemical weapons, and if you're confident that the chemical weapons are safe?"

Note that the question has to do with whether the Syrian government has enough controls on its stockpile of chemical weapons that such weapons would not fall in the hands of terrorist groups. Obama gave a long answer, but here's the key section:

"I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That's an issue that doesn't just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

"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."

Obama's formulation is very loose and informal, focused mainly on the question of movement of chemical weapons: "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

When I was a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, one rule of thumb was that prepared statements should be given more weight than off-hand statements at news conferences. Prepared statements often were the result of careful staff discussions and thus generally provided a better sense of the actual policies of an administration. Of course, talking points at news conferences can also be the result of staff discussions, but they may not always be delivered correctly.

Indeed, the New York Times later reported that Obama had stunned his aides with his "unscripted" language. The Times said that his comments were made "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."

(Continued on page 2)

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