A year ago, at the height of a campaign for re-election, Barack Obama inadvertently crossed a line. Going off-message and beyond his own agreed upon boundaries, he muttered that chemical weapons use by Syria would represent ‘a red line’ which, if crossed, would result in ramifications.
Ever since, the administration has desperately sought to put that genie back in the bottle and has proved singularly unable to do so. For a president renowned for his rhetorical skills, Obama had once more demonstrated his lack of ability when it came to speaking off the cuff and perhaps revealed the lack of experience that many had raised when he first announced for the presidency after a little more than 2 years in the Senate.
Having made the statement, however, the White House has prevaricated on the issue ever since. Not wishing to get involved in a foreign deployment during the campaign, they hedged and weaved, even in the face of increasing atrocities. Holding statements were issued, as Press Secretary Jay Carney was forced to perform semantic somersaults to continue his justification of in-action in the face of international condemnation.
Even as late as Friday night the president appeared to stake out two positions in a single interview on CNN. Insisting that ‘core national interests’ of the United States were at stake in Syria, while failing to commit to an engagement that he believed could be ‘expensive, difficult and costly…’ (Note the double reference to the financial implications of any intervention?)
The US called for UN weapons inspectors to be granted access to a variety of sites, including the location of the most recent tragedy. After days of prevarication, the Assad regime yielded over the weekend, only for the UN team to come under sniper fire as they sought to investigate the situation.
Having been denied access to the sites for days, governments in Europe and the US downplayed the decision to grant access as being too little, too late. Before the inspector’s could conduct their work, therefore, their efforts were being sullied.
Clearly, this weekend, something appears to have changed in Washington.
Secretary of State Kerry has declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons to be ‘undeniable’ despite the apparent lack of any new evidence and the total lack of time for the UN inspectors to have reported back anything of value. Kerry has spoken of ‘real and…compelling’ evidence that the Assad regime was committing ‘a moral obscenity’ that ‘should shock the conscience of the world.’ But where is the evidence of this?
Clearly deaths have occurred, but what new evidence does the White House have today that it lacked a year ago? Kerry has announced that President Obama will shortly ‘be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.’ Yet it was apparent a year ago that such incidents were occurring, so what has changed?
If anything, public support has declined. Polls indicate 9% of Americans support intervention, a decline from a figure of 30% only recently. Indeed, a Syrian intervention is even less popular with voters than Congress, not an easy feat to achieve. There is no domestic constituent pushing for intervention and when was the last time you heard reference to a shadowy ‘Syrian Lobby’ on Capitol Hill?
What is at stake here is the Moral Authority of President Obama. Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has proven to be a profound disappointment to liberals who felt he would restore something that had been lost between 2001 and 2009: Moral Leadership.
However, as he expanded drone use, failed to close Gitmo, expanded the war in Afghanistan and failed to respond to atrocities in Syria, he appeared to many to be merely continuing Bus’s policies. His time in office had become, in some circles, Bush’s Third Term.
However, even now, in threatening to intervene, such a parallel continues: An American president using the use of WMD as a pretext for engaging in a Middle East nation, with little to no domestic support and without the approval of the UN Security Council is a scenario all too familiar for those with memories that extend back just ten short years.
George W. Bush found himself caught between Iraq and a hard place due to his own rhetoric. Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner with his red-line remarks. In both cases lives have been lost as a result. All too easily we forget the power of speech and the implications of action and inaction. What happens next in Syria, will reveal the true distinction between the current and the previous occupant of the Oval Office.