Commentary Magazine


Topic: red lines

Memo to the President: Words Matter

Well, now we know why he needs a teleprompter.

The New York Times reports this morning, in its lead story (with a two-column head, yet) that, “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Late last summer, as the Times explains:

In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.

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.

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Well, now we know why he needs a teleprompter.

The New York Times reports this morning, in its lead story (with a two-column head, yet) that, “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Late last summer, as the Times explains:

In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.

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.”

If President Obama had spent more than two years in the Senate before taking a leave of absence to run for president, he might have come to understand just how important “nuance” is in diplomacy, how every word spoken by the president is parsed and weighed in chancelleries around the world. He might know how small slips can have big consequences. George Bush was savagely criticized after 9/11 for using the word “crusade,” without regard for how sensitive Muslims are about that word. In 1962 President Kennedy was very careful to call his deployment of the navy to prevent more missiles being delivered to Cuba a “quarantine,” rather than a “blockade,” for the latter is, explicitly, an act of war.

This would seem to be more evidence that the Obama presidency is in trouble. That “senior officials” in the White House are willing to talk under a cloak of anonymity about how the president blew it diplomatically and for the most liberal major newspaper in the country to make a big deal of it is not good news for the president.

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America’s Rapidly Vanishing Credibility

If you listen to the Pentagon and the White House, there is no viable military option in Syria—even American air strikes supposedly would be too dangerous because of Bashar Assad’s anti-aircraft defenses. The Israeli Air Force doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, however.

For at least the second time since January, Israel attacked a target in Syria, hitting a warehouse in Damascus on Friday that apparently stored advanced Fateh-110 missiles shipped from Iran and intended for Hezbollah. In late January, Israel similarly struck SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons intended for Hezbollah. There are so-far unconfirmed reports of yet another Israeli air strike in Damascus on Sunday morning.

Israel is doing what it must to defend itself—to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage of the current conflict to further enhance its already formidable arsenal of weapons aimed at Israel. Its neighbors know that Israel is a serious country that acts when threatened. Not so with the U.S. that has announced a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria but refuses to act even when that line has been crossed. Instead, administration officials are leaking word that the “red line” phrase was an off-the-cuff mistake by the president.

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If you listen to the Pentagon and the White House, there is no viable military option in Syria—even American air strikes supposedly would be too dangerous because of Bashar Assad’s anti-aircraft defenses. The Israeli Air Force doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, however.

For at least the second time since January, Israel attacked a target in Syria, hitting a warehouse in Damascus on Friday that apparently stored advanced Fateh-110 missiles shipped from Iran and intended for Hezbollah. In late January, Israel similarly struck SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons intended for Hezbollah. There are so-far unconfirmed reports of yet another Israeli air strike in Damascus on Sunday morning.

Israel is doing what it must to defend itself—to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage of the current conflict to further enhance its already formidable arsenal of weapons aimed at Israel. Its neighbors know that Israel is a serious country that acts when threatened. Not so with the U.S. that has announced a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria but refuses to act even when that line has been crossed. Instead, administration officials are leaking word that the “red line” phrase was an off-the-cuff mistake by the president.

This is hardly a reassuring message, and one that regimes across the region are receiving loud and clear–including Iran that must now know that Obama’s threats to stop its nuclear program are ultimately toothless. Israel, no doubt, is getting the same message: Prime Minister Netanyahu must realize that he cannot count on American action to stop the Iranian program. As it showed in Syria, Israel knows that if it doesn’t act to defend itself, then no one will. That will make it much harder for Obama to dissuade Israel from striking the Iranian nuclear facilities. Credibility is a precious coin in international affairs and unfortunately the president is rapidly devaluing America’s currency in that arena.

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Did Romney Shift on Iran Red Lines?

Josh Rogin reports that Mitt Romney clarified his red line on Iran as “nuclear capability” during a conference call with American rabbis last night:

“With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere,” Romney said. “So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world.”

“Exactly where those red lines [should be drawn] is something which, I guess, I wouldn’t want to get into in great detail, but you understand they are defined by the Iranian capability to have not only fissile material, but bomb making capability and rocketry,” Romney said.

Romney’s remark that the United States should take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons “capability” matches what many GOP leaders and pro-Israel groups have publicly stated, but it stands in contrast to the “red line” Romney set out in a Sept. 14 interview with ABC News.

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Josh Rogin reports that Mitt Romney clarified his red line on Iran as “nuclear capability” during a conference call with American rabbis last night:

“With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere,” Romney said. “So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world.”

“Exactly where those red lines [should be drawn] is something which, I guess, I wouldn’t want to get into in great detail, but you understand they are defined by the Iranian capability to have not only fissile material, but bomb making capability and rocketry,” Romney said.

Romney’s remark that the United States should take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons “capability” matches what many GOP leaders and pro-Israel groups have publicly stated, but it stands in contrast to the “red line” Romney set out in a Sept. 14 interview with ABC News.

Saying that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon (which is Obama’s position) and saying that Iran cannot achieve the capability to build a nuclear weapon are obviously very important distinctions. A nuclear-capable Iran would have the ability to assemble a bomb within a very short window, which is why many conservatives draw the line at capability.

Some are calling this a shift in Romney’s position, noting that he told George Stephanopoulos last week that “My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.” When asked whether that meant his red line was the same as Obama’s, Romney said yes.

But take another look at Romney’s full quote to Stephanopoulos:

Well, my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.  It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world.  Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East.  But it could be brought here.  Hezbollah, which has presence in Latin America can be bring fissile material and threaten the United States by perhaps bringing it into the United States and suggesting they’d detonate it if we didn’t do certain things.  Look, Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America.

Romney does state that a nuclear weapon is his red line in the first sentence. But then he elaborates a bit, saying they should not have the “capacity” to terrorize the world, and warning that “fissile material” — a precursor to a bomb — could fall into the hands of terrorists. Almost immediately after the interview, Romney’s campaign clarified that he was talking about capacity. “As he said this morning, Governor Romney’s red line is Iran having a nuclear weapons capacity,” his spokesperson Andrea Saul told the New York Times.

Romney also indicated that capability was his red line during his visit to Israel in July. He said that “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability presents an intolerable threat to Israel, to America, and to the world,” adding that “the regime in Iran is five years closer to developing nuclear weapons capability. Preventing that outcome must be our highest national security priority.”

Based on all of that, his comment on the conference call last night doesn’t appear to be a deviation from his position. He can be criticized for being less than clear during his interview with Stephanopoulos (and there are lingering questions about why he agreed that his red lines are the same as Obama’s), but the position he gave on the conference call isn’t any different from the one his campaign explicitly stated last week.

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