Obama’s 'red line' on Syria: An Iraq-like 'slam dunk' moment?

President Obama said a 'red line' would be crossed if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against rebels. Might that propel the US into war, as those elusive 'weapons of mass destruction' did in Iraq?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in Syria during his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday.

For President Obama, the Syrian regime’s possible use of chemical weapons brings with it a political dilemma that can be summed up in two words: “Slam dunk.”

That was what then-CIA director George Tenet told the Bush White House about Iraq’s alleged possession of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).

It was a phrase Mr. Tenet came to regret, asserting that others in the administration twisted its intended use – that building public support for a US-led invasion of Iraq would be easy – to make the CIA (and him in particular) the scapegoat when no WMD were found.

But Tenet admitted in his 2007 book “At the Center of the Storm” that “there was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” nor any in-depth discussion of possible alternatives to military invasion.

Fast-forward ten years since the beginning of the Iraq War – which has cost 4,486 US military fatalities, plus at least several hundred US civilian contractors killed in Iraq – and “Iraq has informed every part of this debate” over Syria, writes Amy Davidson in the New Yorker.

The headline on a Politico piece reads: “Iraq haunts President Obama’s Syria choices.”

“The ghosts of the Iraq War weigh heavily on the president and his top advisers handling the Syria crisis, according to former officials and analysts close to the administration,” writes Politico’s Josh Gerstein. “They don’t want to get it wrong. They don’t want to move too quickly. They don’t want to spend the second term getting embroiled in toppling another Middle East dictator and cleaning up the aftermath after spending the first term getting untangled from the last war.”

It’s a specter with implications for Obama’s legacy; by nearly 2-to-1, Americans don’t think the war in Iraq was worth the cost.

In fact, Obama already has had a sort-of “slam dunk” moment with his assertion that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels would constitute the crossing of an unacceptable “red line,” with the implied warning that the US might then initiate a military response.

Has that red line been crossed?

"Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin," the White House said in a letter to members of Congress this week.

The operative phrase here seems to be “small scale,” suggesting that the red line may have been nudged but not fully crossed. Speaking to reporters before meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah in the Oval Office Friday Obama implied as much.

"Knowing that there's chemical weapons in Syria doesn't tell us when they were used or how they were used," he said.

"To use weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line in terms of international norms and laws – that's going to be a game changer,” Obama said. “For the Syrian Government to use chemical weapons on its people will change my calculus.”

It’s worth noting that Obama’s initial use of “red line” regarding Syria left room for maneuver.

Last summer, he warned that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

Although critics may see it as waffling, there is a clear difference between “small scale” and “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons being used. And as Time magazine’s defense expert Mark Thompson notes, “‘Some degree of varying confidence’ is a loophole big enough to fly a cruise missile through.”
 But what Obama said Friday was far less than more hawkish lawmakers wanted to hear. “Disappointing but predictable statement by the President on #Syria today,” Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona tweeted.

"The president clearly stated that it was a red line and that it couldn't be crossed without the United States taking vigorous action,” Sen. McCain told Fox News earlier in the week. “That action should be a safe zone for the Syrian opposition to operate in Syria, weapons to the right people in Syria, and neutralizing the air capability of Bashar Assad."

"It's a red line that's been crossed," Senator Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said on CNN. "So the question is what's next?"

What’s next is a lot of soul-searching by civilian and military officials, including for some a review of history regarding other controversial intelligence assessments – as Time’s Thompson does going back to the controversial (and largely discredited)Tonkin Gulf Resolution giving President Lyndon Johnson the authority to conduct war in Vietnam without formal declaration.

Meanwhile, Obama’s “red line” stands, along with the “varying degrees of confidence” among US intelligence agencies regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

“The trouble with statements like that is you can get drawn into military operations,” retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni told Time magazine.

Which is the circumstance the Obama administration now finds itself in.

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