A new Politico article discusses “Obama’s red line” in Syria. The gist of the story is that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump encouraged Obama not to attack Syria, despite saber rattling by others. And now, Syria has been the main foreign affairs story in the news this year. Let’s begin with excerpts from that story.
The Democratic nominee played a surprising role in deciding not to bomb Syria, but her rival also supported the president’s decision. . .
“She was there as Secretary of State with the so-called line in the sand,” Trump said, in an apparent reference to what is usually called Obama’s “red line”
“No I wasn’t. I was gone,” Clinton protested. “At some point we need to get the facts out.”
But the facts are less convenient than either Clinton or Trump suggested.
Although she was a private citizen at the time, Clinton did play a supporting role in the red line saga. . .
She issued several public statements supporting Obama. . . at the time he urged Obama in a tweet not to follow through on his threat to bomb Syria.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your "powder" for another (and more important) day!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2013
Actually, Obama never had any intention of bombing Syria. But his mistake was to say, repeatedly, “Assad must go.” What does that even mean? How would that work? Apparently, Obama was trying to encourage the rebels, while warning Assad that the United States was against him.
Other than that, Obama has agreed with Trump—that the United States should not be in the business of “nation building,” and that we should not be involved in foreign civil wars. The problem is that the media, then politicians, and the public has totally misinterpreted what Obama said in his “red line” comment. So let’s take a look at that.
This is what Obama actually said:
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. [Emphasis added]
The statement was made in an impromptu news conference. The first question was about Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s comment on assaults on women, and whether he should drop out of the race. That was followed by two questions about Mitt Romney and the 2012 campaign. Then a question about Afghanistan—and finally, the question about Syria—but coupled with a question about Mitt Romney’s tax returns.
The two final questions were about whether Syria’s chemical weapons were safe (presumably from rebels, who might get to them). That is the context of Obama’s response. And note that even his “calculus” would not change unless there were a “whole bunch of chemical weapons” involved.
The idea that ANY use of chemical weapons would trigger a US response was never suggested by Obama. The “red line” only referred to MASSIVE use or movement of chemical weapons—by either side. It was not just directed at Syria, but also, “other players on the ground.” Clearly, this was not about Assad, it was about massive use of chemical weapons by either side.
After there were reports of minor use of chemical weapons in Syria, there was a crescendo of criticism and complaints that Obama should attack Syria. Obama tried to quell the storm, but finally did exactly what people have been saying presidents should do—ask for approval by Congress. Clever move, since they all wanted to complain, but nobody wanted to be responsible for yet another war—“Authorization of Force.”
World politics are always very complicated. Every comment or action can cause a wide ranging effect. That’s why it’s best not to become involved, if not necessary. Likewise, politics often “makes strange bedfellows.” Often the enemy of your enemy becomes an ally.
Even then, the world’s main enemy was—and is—ISIS, not Assad. Just like Saddam Hussein was doing us more good than bad when he was in power. He was a secular leader who was the sworn enemy of al Qaeda and other extremists.
We should have left him in place. Likewise, we should have aligned with Russia from the outset to attack radicals who were attacking Syria. If that meant stabilizing the Assad regime, so be it.
If we had worked along side Russia, we could have been allies. And we would have been in a position to convince them to moderate their activities elsewhere, as well.
The whole chemical weapons issue was finally resolved by a UN resolution on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. US war averted.