Weigel

Yes, John Kerry, It Actually Is Barack Obama’s “Red Line”

Check the transcripts, Mr. Secretary.

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The strangest moment in yesterday’s Syria testimony came early, when Secretary of State John Kerry declared pre-emptive war on strawmen.

“Some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s red line,” he told senators. “I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”

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Like I said, strange. “Red line” is a cliché in foreign policy—we still use it to refer to the threshold Iran may cross if it obtains nuclear weapons—but in this case, in regard to Syria, it was absolutely coined by President Obama on Aug. 20, 2012:

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We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation. … We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.

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It was reiterated over the months since, by a “White House Official” on April 25, 2013:

We go on to reaffirm that the President has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us, nor should it be to the international community.  It’s precisely because we take this red line so seriously that we believe there is an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria.

And by Jay Carney on May 6, 2013:

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The President’s use of the term red line was deliberate and was based on U.S. policy. The world knew that the Syrian government possessed chemical weapons, and we had a concern that as the regime was increasingly beleaguered, it might use chemical weapons against the Syrian people in desperation. The message that the President delivered that day was the same message that he was delivering in private. It was one that he and others in the administration have reinforced on multiple occasions ever since.

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So Kerry was trying to combat some completely fair accountability-watching with spin. There are votes to be lost if Republicans see this vote as a desparate attempt to rescue Barack Obama’s credibility. The “red line” is being retconned into a global standard—a global test, if you will—that Obama merely reiterated when describing what any president would have to do in this situation. Presumably, no Democrats walk away because of the new-old-new definition, and a couple of Republicans see … I was about to write “the light on the road to Damascus,” but that’s not in the best taste now.

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