President Barack Obama answers questions during his news conference Tuesday in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Updated: June 4, 2013 6:19AM
It’s hard not to sympathize with President Barack Obama’s reluctance to dive into Syria. It’s a messy civil war with no seemingly good outcome for America. But Obama risks damaging his credibility and that of the United States in a dangerous world at a dangerous time. He has no one to blame but himself, and unfortunately it’s not the first time his words have backfired on him.
Obama couldn’t have been clearer — up until recent days, that is — in his warning to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. For example, last August he declared, “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.”
Then came word that U.S. intelligence, following reports from British, French and Israeli agencies, had concluded the Assad regime had used sarin gas against its people. Obama immediately asked for more proof: How much gas had been used, when, where and by whom? Reasonable questions, but given the uncompromising nature of his warnings, Obama looked like he was hedging. Observers started referring to Obama’s red line as a pink line, a dotted line and a red line a mile wide — not encouraging commentary on Obama’s credibility.
While the focus was on the “use” of chemical weapons, Obama also had declared that moving them around crossed his red line. And the evidence for that looks to be even firmer than for use. Worse, so many of the weapons have been relocated that American military and intelligence agencies don’t know where a lot of them are, according to Newsweek and Daily Beast national-security correspondent Eli Lake. That would complicate immeasurably the problem of securing these awful weapons, always cited as a U.S. option to keep them from falling into the hands of terrorists.
Obama’s response has been to call for a U.N. investigation — more hedging — and to consider arming “moderate” rebels in Syria. By all accounts, Islamist forces allied with al-Qaida are in the forefront of the rebellion. Even members of the administration once in favor of arming the rebels now are wary because of the ascendency of radical Islamists.
Obama hasn’t learned how his pronouncements can backfire. He came into office four years ago wanting to show space between America and Israel to gain credibility in the Muslim world. He declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank were illegitimate, establishing for the Palestinians a precondition to peace negotiations that they had never demanded before. It gave them another excuse to avoid the hard decisions necessary for peace, and prospects for direct talks collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry is now trying to undo that damage to get negotiations on track again.
Obama also promised that the killers of our ambassador to Libya and three other Americans would be brought to justice. Hasn’t been done, and now Obama’s spokesman refers to Benghazi as something that “happened a long time ago.” Hardly eight months ago, actually.
All this calls into question the credibility of Obama’s pledge — strongly reiterated in Israel six weeks ago — that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. After the Syria red line, will Tehran believe him? Will Syria feel free to use chemical weapons again and in greater numbers and lethality?
Early in the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt declared U.S. foreign policy should be to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Obama would be well-advised to think about that, and his own 2008 observation about the meaning of oratory: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.”