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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Sanders and Clinton Spar Over … President Obama
10 hours ago

President Obama became a surprise topic of contention toward the end of the Democratic debate, as Hillary Clinton reminded viewers that Sanders had challenged the progressive bona fides of President Obama in 2011 and suggested that someone might challenge him from the left. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” she said. “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow,” replied Sanders, before getting in another dig during his closing statement: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”

THE 1%
Sanders’s Appeals to Minorities Still Filtered Through Wall Street Talk
11 hours ago

It’s all about the 1% and Wall Street versus everyone else for Bernie Sanders—even when he’s talking about race relations. Like Hillary Clinton, he needs to appeal to African-American and Hispanic voters in coming states, but he insists on doing so through his lens of class warfare. When he got a question from the moderators about the plight of black America, he noted that during the great recession, African Americans “lost half their wealth,” and “instead of tax breaks for billionaires,” a Sanders presidency would deliver jobs for kids. On the very next question, he downplayed the role of race in inequality, saying, “It’s a racial issue, but it’s also a general economic issue.”

Clinton Already Pivoting Her Messaging
12 hours ago

It’s been said in just about every news story since New Hampshire: the primaries are headed to states where Hillary Clinton will do well among minority voters. Leaving nothing to chance, she underscored that point in her opening statement in the Milwaukee debate tonight, saying more needs to be done to help “African Americans who face discrimination in the job market” and immigrant families. She also made an explicit reference to “equal pay for women’s work.” Those boxes she’s checking are no coincidence: if she wins women, blacks and Hispanics, she wins the nomination.

How Many Jobs Would Be Lost Under Bernie Sanders’s Single-Payer System?
19 hours ago

More than 11 million, according to Manhattan Institute fellow Yevgeniy Feyman, writing in RealClearPolicy.

State to Release 550 More Clinton Emails on Saturday
19 hours ago

Under pressure from a judge, the State Department will release about 550 of Hillary Clinton’s emails—“roughly 14 percent of the 3,700 remaining Clinton emails—on Saturday, in the middle of the Presidents Day holiday weekend.” All of the emails were supposed to have been released last month. Related: State subpoenaed the Clinton Foundation last year, which brings the total number of current Clinton investigations to four, says the Daily Caller.