The New York Times attempted to help President Barack Obama out of a national security mess of his own making Sunday, with an article claiming that his “red line” warning to Syria on chemical weapons last August was an “off-the-cuff” remark and not a serious policy position to which the White House clung for months.
Faced with accepting one of two faults in a president that the Times has promoted for more than five years, the Grey Lady chose to cast Obama’s policy failure in Syria as malapropism rather than sheer cowardice, opportunism or ineptitude.
But the Times does not quite succeed–and, in fact, ends up portraying Obama in an even worse light:
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
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.”
Two possibilities emerge from the Times‘ account of events:
- The Times is right, and President Obama misspoke on a matter of fundamental national security.
- The Times is wrong, and President Obama said exactly what he meant to say, creating an artificial posture of strength for political gain in the midst of an election, without regard to long-term consequences.
Even if #1 is right, it would mean that President Obama’s aides, embarrassed on his behalf, had decided to “throw him under the bus” to save his policy–hardly a gesture that inspires confidence in his leadership.
Regardless, the time for walking back a “red line” drawn in error is after the remark is made, not after the red line is crossed. The resulting cost to our credibility on matters of national security is not easily undone.