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Obama’s “Red Line” a Year Later

It was a year ago today that President Obama said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should step down and that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against rebel forces would constitute crossing a “red line.”

Today President Assad is more powerful than he was a year ago and Sky News is reporting that according to Syria’s main opposition group, the National Coalition, more than 1,300 people have been killed in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus. (For the record the government says the claims are “totally false” and the international news organizations reporting them are “implicated in the shedding of Syrian blood and support terrorism.”)

A nurse at the Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, told Reuters the death toll collated from medical centers was at least 213. “Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said. (Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.)

Allegations of these latest attacks come in the wake of our allies having informed the United Nations that there was credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons on more than one occasion since December 2012–a finding the Obama administration belatedly and reluctantly concurred with.

Set aside for a moment the horrors of the Syrian civil war, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed. Think instead of the damage done to American credibility for Obama to declare that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” and that it would constitute a “game changer.” What that means, in the language of international affairs, is that if Assad used chemical weapons, the United States would retaliate with military force. The president said what he said because, as an Obama official told the Washington Post last August, “there’s a deterrent effect in making clear how seriously we take the use of chemical weapons or giving them to some proxy force.”

Except that the deterrent effect didn’t work. Chemical weapons have been used. The man who sternly assured us us “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff” was, in fact, bluffing. The entire world knows it. And our allies and our adversaries, each in their own way, are adjusting accordingly.

This is just the latest example of an administration whose foreign policy is feckless, incoherent, and inept. The Middle East is undergoing convulsive changes. Chaos, disorder, and violence are spreading. And the words of the president of the United States have been rendered nugatory. It is an astonishing thing to behold; and a depressing one, too. 


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