Obama’s Foreign Policy by Faux Pas

The confrontation with Syria started with an alleged verbal slip, and it may end because of another one.

President Barack Obama answers questions during his new conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. The president said the US doesn't know how or when chemical weapons were used in Syria or who used them. 
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Sept. 10, 2013, 8:33 a.m.

The U.S. got in­to its con­front­a­tion with Syr­ia over an al­legedly un­scrip­ted state­ment from Pres­id­ent Obama, and may now get out of it thanks to an off-the-cuff re­mark from Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry. 

Obama set the stage for mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in the Syr­i­an civil war last year with two words: “red line.” If we see “a whole bunch of [chem­ic­al] weapons mov­ing around or be­ing util­ized,” that would be a “red line” that would “change my cal­cu­lus,” Obama fam­ously said. The defin­it­ive­ness of the state­ment made it im­possible for the pres­id­ent not to re­spond when he de­term­ined that forces loy­al to Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad used chem­ic­al weapons against ci­vil­ians last month.

But The New York Times re­por­ted in May that Obama was nev­er sup­posed to ut­ter the words “red line.” One un­named of­fi­cial said the com­ment was “un­scrip­ted,” while an­oth­er said the idea was to “put a chill in­to the As­sad re­gime without ac­tu­ally trap­ping the pres­id­ent in­to any pre­de­ter­mined ac­tion.” Wheth­er or not Obama got ahead of him­self, it didn’t really mat­ter in the end as the “red line” be­came the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s of­fi­cial po­s­i­tion and the genie couldn’t be put back in­to the bottle.

That is, ex­cept, per­haps by an­oth­er un­scrip­ted re­mark from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. As For­eign Policy‘s Yo­chi Dreazen wrote, Kerry may have “ad-lib[bed] his way out of war” Monday when he sug­ges­ted that Syr­ia could avoid air strikes if it gave up its chem­ic­al-weapons cache.

It was an off­han­ded re­mark that the State De­part­ment im­me­di­ately tried to walk back. “Sec­ret­ary Kerry was mak­ing a rhet­or­ic­al ar­gu­ment about the im­possib­il­ity and un­like­li­hood of As­ad turn­ing over chem­ic­al weapons,” spokes­per­son Jen Psaki said. But with­in hours, the Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment offered to make it a real­ity, the Syr­i­ans said they’d play ball, and Obama him­self en­dorsed it. Now it looks like a mil­it­ary con­front­a­tion may be aver­ted, at least for the mo­ment, thanks in part to Kerry’s slip of the tongue.

If it goes through (and it’s a big if, con­sid­er­ing the tech­nic­al dif­fi­culty of se­cur­ing the weapons), it’s a would-be war bookended by verbal gaffes. For­eign policy by faux pas.

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