Obama reframes ‘red line’ rhetoric
Jonathan Allen, Politico, Sep 4 2013
Obama drew a new line on his “red line” today, urging the world to see him as the guardian of high moral principle rather than just personal credibility. Despite his statement a year ago that Assad would cross a “red line” that would “change my equation” if he used chemical weapons on his own people, Obama today declared:
First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. So when I said that my calculus would be altered by chemical weapons, which the overall consensus of humanity says is wrong, that’s not something I just made up. I didn’t pick it out of thin air. My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and USAia’s and Congress’s credibility is on the line.
With a lot of luck and even more lobbying, Obama just might be able to salvage what he and his aides frame as a historic moment from the politics of the moment on Capitol Hill and in foreign capitals. But the gambit shocked critics of his Syria policy, prompting an immediate response online and off that demonstrated just how much his credibility is on the line, not just in responding to Assad but in leveling with the international community that he is trying to rally. On Twitter, the hashtag #whosaidobamasredline began trending soon after Obama spoke. And there was nothing virtual about the disbelief on Capitol Hill. Saxby Chambliss said:
He needs to go back and read his quote.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg School of Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on presidential rhetoric, said:
There’s a reframing going on here. Obama wants Syrian atrocities to be perceived as one of those non-negotiable moments in world history. But he’s creating a secondary problem for himself by arguing on the one hand that the world has an obligation to take action against Assad, but on the other that he won’t put boots on the ground or seek regime change. Once you argue from a moral principle, you can’t bound the action.
It remains to be seen whether Obama can persuade the US people, Congress, and the international community that striking Syria is both the moral and practical imperative that he says it is. His logic has become difficult for some USAians to fathom. Assad is a Hitler-like dictator who must be punished to prevent a historic massacre of his own people, but not bad enough for Obama to put US boots on the ground or use a full aerial assault to remove him from power. And no matter how much Obama tries to distance himself from a responsibility he ascribes to the rest of the world, his credibility with the public, and a Congress now charged with bolstering him or burning him, is being sorely tested by an unpopular march toward military action in Syria. His Syria reset landed with jarring certainty and moral authority for a president whose policy on Syria has been anything but certain and authoritative. Just like his decision to go to Congress, to call out those who were giving him tacit but not explicit approval, Wednesday’s declaration smacked of a risky gambit to flip a losing script. The narrative opened with a burst, a “red line” remark that, according to the NYT, surprised aides when Obama delivered it off the cuff at a press conference in Aug 2012. But the rhetorical shift was more deliberate than that, and even more gradual than it appeared. The turn started slowly over the holiday weekend, with top members of his administration and congressional allies drawing not-so-subtle comparisons between Assad’s actions and those of other brutal dictators and their atrocities, including Hitler and the Holocaust. They had been talking about “international norms” the previous week, but there was nothing as compelling as what was to come in the effort to lobby members of Congress to get behind Obama. On a conference call with lawmakers on Monday, Jackass Kerry described the current situation as a “Munich moment.” After a Tuesday meeting at the White House, Nancy Pelosi trotted out both lines of argument. She said the world, not Obama, had drawn the red line, and that leaders had to say “never again,” a phrase used by Jews and others in the aftermath of the Holocaust as a reminder to stop evil before it gathers steam. Pressed on whether she was comparing the chemical weapons attack to the Holocaust, Pelosi backed off, but the implication was clear that it is the civilized world, not just Obama, that must act to counter Assad. Still, it was a far cry from the personal way in which on Saturday he and his aides described the personal nature of his decision and his willingness to lead on his own. In his Rose Garden speech on Saturday Aug 31, he said:
I have decided that the US should take military action against the Syrian regime. And I’m prepared to give that order.
And when senior administration officials described his decision to hold off on that order to share the burden with Congress, they described it as the confident call of a commander-in-chief willing to turn the direction of the ship of state on a dime, no matter what his advisers thought about the risks of going to Congress. But the effort to pass the buck to Congress and the community of nations didn’t back up the leadership narrative he was trying to construct. He needed a new rhetorical plan to match his new proposal to seek affirmation from congressman and other countries. So the temporary discomfort of hard-to-believe rhetorical yoga was trumped by the need to elevate the discussion from a personal plane to a moral one, a last stab at building international support to back up the “red line” remark. People close to the president argued Wednesday that the red line was never just Obama’s, and that the president has long made that clear.
Senior White House adviser Senior White House Jew Dan Pfeiffer tweeted:
Too many make this Obama’s redline, when it has been the redline for the world for decades. calling it obama’s redline ignores context and history.
Pfeiffer said that Obama referred to “the Chemical Weapons Ban and the international norm” in all his comments on chemical weapons, but the president didn’t offer that context in his initial “red line” comments back in Aug 2012 or in more recent statements until responding to the use of chemical weapons last month in Syria. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau also chimed in on Twitter, writing:
The chemical weapons convention is a ‘red line’ that countries with 98% of the world’s population signed on to long before POTUS comments.
But some members of Congress, in both parties and in both chambers, are anxious to remind Obama that words matter. Brad Sherman said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday:
The president drew a red line … when the president drew that red line.