The declaration of a "red line" by President Obama a year ago regarding Syria and chemical weapons has provoked confusion among even the president's supporters, and derision from his detractors. In a recent State Department press briefing, spokesperson Jen Psaki had the unenviable task of trying to make a fuzzy policy seem otherwise:
MS. PSAKI: Well, the redline has been clear. I know there’s been some confusion about this. The redline is the use of CW, the use of chemical weapons. That was crossed a couple of months ago. The President took action, which we talked about at the time. While, as I mentioned, we’re still focused on nailing down the facts – the intel community is focused on that, the Administration is focused on that – if these reports are true, it would be an outrageous and flagrant escalation of use of chemical weapons by the regime. So our focus is on nailing down the facts. The President, of course, has a range of options that we’ve talked about before that he can certainly consider and, of course, discuss with his national security team...
MS. PSAKI: We did take action. We did – we’re not going to outline the inventory of what we did. That remains the same as it was a couple of months ago. But the President acted. We crossed a redline. It did change the calculus, and we took action, and we have the opportunity, or the option, to do more if he chooses to do more...
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to outline the conversations, the private conversations, that are happening. There is broad agreement that any step we would take would be one – the decision would be part of what’s in our national security interests, what helps advance our interests in Syria, and certainly, the crossing of a redline would be part of that calculus and part of that decision. But there’s a range of options that are being discussed as well as a range of step – a range of incoming information that’s being discussed as part of these meetings as well.Since the context of the president's red line declaration is a military conflict, it seems fair to look to the military for a definition. Fortunately, we do not have to look far. On July 18 of this year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter addressed the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado. While Carter was not discussing Syria or setting conditions on the conduct of foreign nations, in the course of answering a question, he gave an example of a literal military “red line”. The contrast to the Obama administration’s red line ("exploring a range of options", "change the calculus") is stark:
And you have to have a system, which I would liken to our longstanding system for handling nuclear weapons. You know, we have no-alone zones. We have two-man rule. You go out to, you know, Barksdale and walk around the Apron, and you'll see a red line. And it says you cross that red line, you can get shot, because there are areas where you're simply not to be, because proximity to nuclear weapons is too sensitive and momentous a thing to be allowed for individuals. Because, you know, there's always some aberrant individual somewhere, and you've got to recognize that fact.The guards at Barksdale Air Force Base do not “explore a range of options.” Crossing the line does not "change the calculus." It's not calculus at all - it's geography. "You cross that red line, you can get shot." Bashar al-Assad does not seem to take "getting shot" by the U.S. seriously.
The State Department's diplomatic personnel might be uncomfortable with the concept of a red line; hence Ms. Psaki's reticence about specifics. But President Obama is the commander-in-chief of the most powerful armed forces in the world. Guards at Barksdale Air Force Base cannot and would not tolerate someone playing chicken on the red line on the Apron with the security of nuclear weapons. And President Obama should not have allowed Assad (an "aberrant individual" if ever there was one) to entertain any doubts about the intentions of the U.S. if he flouted the chemical weapons red line. The consequences should have been clear and unequivocal.
The president often employs the phrase, "Let me be clear." As his administration struggles to regain foreign policy credibility and formulate a response to the latest alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad, let us hope that this time, the president is indeed clear. Our national security depends on it.