SecDef Hagel has acknowledged that Assad used Sarin against the rebels in Syria, but the White House is being much more circumspect in its appraisal. The circumspection undoubtedly traces directly to the fact that Obama declared the use of chemical weapons to be a “red line” in the conflict, but he has zero interest in getting involved. But remember, Obama qualified what constituted the crossing of the red line: it wasn’t any use of CW, it was the use and or movement of “a whole bunch” of CW.
Did I call this or what? From last August:
But Obama has avoided even the suggestion of intervention in Syria like the plague.
Until now. He has drawn a red line, but in so doing, he sows confusion rather than producing clarity:
Seeking re-election in November, Obama noted that he had refrained “at this point” from ordering U.S. military engagement in Syria. But when he was asked at a White House news conference whether he might deploy forces, for example to secure Syrian chemical and biological weapons, he said his view could change.
“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,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus.”
“A whole bunch of chemical weapons”? ”A whole bunch”? Really? WTF constitutes “a whole bunch”? Is he saying to Assad that he can move around and use a few chemical weapons, as long as he doesn’t cross the “whole bunch” line? Wherever that is.
Excuse me while I go pound my head on the floor.
OK. Back now.
Look. There is a principle often invoked in foreign policy, and politics generally, of “constructive ambiguity.” But this is completely unconstructive ambiguity, that creates the potential for a miscalculation. Obama gives the impression that Assad can become a little bit pregnant in the use of WMD. Think a dictator with his back to the wall just might see how pregnant he can become?
No, this is not Machiavellian ambiguity on Obama’s part. It is an attempt to look all butch and tough while giving himself some maneuvering room down the road if Assad or whoever gets their hands on chem and bio weapons uses them in the coming weeks or months. Obama can rationalize not responding by invoking the “whole bunch” clause.
And note the unspoken corollary to Obama’s red line: Anything short of the use of chemical or biological weapons will NOT lead Obama to change his calculus. At least that is very likely to be the corollary that Assad (and his BFFs, the Russians) draws from Obama drawing the red line at WMD.
There are no easy answers in Syria, and non-intervention is a defensible position. But Obama has wanted to have it both ways, and now his bluff is being called. As many have pointed out, how he responds will be watched closely by North Korea and Iran, not to mention China and Russia-and Syria. Assad has gotten a little bit pregnant, and nothing has happened. Given his desperate straits-with most of his shambolic military penned up in bases with little ability to move or take the offensive-he has every incentive to see how much more pregnant he can get.
Lawyerly caviling about what constitutes “a whole bunch” will only convince hard men around the world that Obama’s bluffs can be called, with no consequence. That bodes ill.