Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By Glenn Kessler / The Washington Post
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But aides did not walk it back. The very next day, when asked about the "red line," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said:
"As the President said yesterday in terms of Syria, we're watching very closely the stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons; that any use or proliferation of efforts related to those chemical weapons is something that would be very serious and it would be a grave mistake.
"There are important international obligations that the Syrian regime must live up to in terms of the handling of their chemical weapons. And the officials who have that responsibility will be held accountable for their actions and will be held accountable for living up to those international obligations."
So the red line, for better or worse, was in place.
In April, in a letter sent to lawmakers saying there was evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, White House legislative affairs director Miguel Rodriguez asserted: "Because of our concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria, the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons — or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups — is a red line for the United States of America. The Obama administration has communicated that message publicly and privately to governments around the world, including the Assad regime."
This claim of ownership of the "red line" was also restated in a conference call that White House officials held with reporters when the letter was made public:
"We go on to reaffirm that the President has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us, nor should it be to the international community. It's precisely because we take this red line so seriously that we believe there is an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria."
Oddly, at a news conference a few days later, the president was asked about the red line again and he tried to minimize it as "not a surprise:"
"What I've also said is that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer not simply for the United States but for the international community. And the reason for that is that we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons, you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want that genie out of the bottle. So when I said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn't unique to — that wasn't a position unique to the United States and it shouldn't have been a surprise."
When the administration unexpectedly decided to seek congressional approval for a military strike, officials clearly faced a conundrum. The president needs the votes of Republicans in order to win approval, but given the partisan distrust of his leadership, the White House apparently decided it would not be helpful to ask for support for an Obama "red line." So the rhetoric shifted — it was now the world's red line.
This new language was first introduced by Secretary of State John Kerry when he testified before the Senate on Tuesday — the day before the president made his remarks in Sweden. Kerry even brought up the long-forgotten Syrian Accountability Act of 2003, which included a few lines about Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in its preamble. However, the "sense of Congress" barely mentions the issue; the bill was mostly about the regime's support of terrorist organizations and de facto control of Lebanon.
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