It is becoming part of the conventional wisdom that Obama committed a gaffe when he set a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria:
“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.”
The New York Times went so far as to report:
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, 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.
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
Recently, the White House spokes-urchin, Jay Carney, tried to claim Obama had not made a mistake:
“The president’s use of the term ‘red line’ was deliberate and was based on U.S. policy,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing.
As much as it pains me to say it, Jay Carney is correct and the New York Times account is totally false. The use of “red line” to describe chemical weapons use in Syria did not originate with Obama going off message, it reflected a calculated use of the term.
On August 11, 2012, ten days before Obama’s statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had a joint press conference in Istanbul. During that press conference the following exchange happened:
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, for you, can you tell us a little bit more in detail about your meeting with the opposition activists? Did you get a better sense of whether they are really prepared to be able to be involved in leading a transition? What kind of questions did you ask them about who is actually doing the fighting on the ground? And what kind of answers did you get?
And then, for both of you, there has been a lot of talk about this common operational picture. What exactly is that common operational picture? Does it involve the potential of this corridor from Aleppo, north to the border here, turning into some kind of safe haven? And does it include anything on how to deal with the chemical weapons that everyone has expressed concern about? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: [yadda yadda] And both the minister and I saw eye to eye on the many tasks that are ahead of us, and the kinds of contingencies that we have to plan for, including the one you mentioned in the horrible event that chemical weapons were used. And everyone has made it clear to the Syrian regime that is a red line for the world, [italics mine] what would that mean in terms of response and humanitarian and medical emergency assistance, and of course, what needs to be done to secure those stocks from every being used, or from falling into the wrong hands.
It appears that where Obama deviated from script was in omitting “for the world” and substituting “for us.” Small wonder then that our answer to Metternich insisted that he had meant the world had set the red line, not him:
“I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”
So, the red line was not a gaffe it was the considered policy of the United States. This, if anything, makes the whole incident more egregious as the nation was consciously committed to acting militarily (see Clinton’s statement about “contingencies” and “response”) in case of chemical weapons use in Syria and yet it is obvious no planning was ever accomplished in anticipation of such an event. Yet another blunder by the administration comes home to roost.