The president's every word weighs a ton. Sometimes those words crash down.
The advisers reviewed an array of pre-emptive military options and quickly discounted them as impractical. The evidence was not strong enough to warrant a pre-emptive strike, they concluded, and military officers said the best they could do with airstrikes or commando operations would be to limit the use of chemical weapons already deployed.
Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”At a press conference on August 20, however, however, the president said:
But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That's an issue that doesn't just concern Syria, it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
We have been very clear to the Asad 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.
Q. So you're confident it's somehow under—it's safe?
The President. In a situation this volatile, I wouldn't say that I am absolutely confident. What I'm saying is we're monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.The New York Times describes the fallout of the president's words:
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.”
As a result, the president seems to be moving closer to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months ago. American officials have even discussed with European allies the prospect of airstrikes to take out Syrian air defenses, airplanes and missile delivery systems, if government use of chemical weapons is confirmed.At The Daily Beast, Lloyd Green writes:
After our so-called triumphs in Iraq and Libya – and our not-so-triumphant 12-year experience in Afghanistan – the siren song of Syria now beckons. Mr. President, resist that call. We are not wanted there; America has no need to go there. Think Viet Nam, without a Cold War to offer as rationale for our presence. Indeed, those who urge you to go there never voted for you, and that should tell you something about your future base of support when things head south. Yes, we are actually in the curious situation where the American and Arab publics are united on a key issue: Don’t go to Damascus.