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Drawing a Red Line
May 7, 2013
In a famous parable, the Buddha spoke of a man who was shot by a poisoned arrow. Before he would allow the doctors to remove it and treat him he insisted on knowing who shot the arrow, what his social status was and where he was born. Moreover, he would not allow the doctors to proceed until someone could tell him what kind of arrow it was, how the bow was constructed and out of what materials. To put it mildly, this is a bad strategy for a man who wants to survive a poisoned arrow.
Such a man now seems to occupy the Oval Office. Last summer the President drew a “red line” that the Syrian government would cross if it used chemical weapons against the insurgents. It is now clear at least that the U.S. Government believes that that line has been crossed. When he was asked at his press conference on Tuesday, he had this to say:
We don't know how they were used and when they were used and who used them. We don't have a chain of custody.
You don’t have to be a master strategist to know how awful those words are. As one cartoonist put it, the Syrians are now “perilously close to the purple line, which is dangerously near the tangerine tangent, the sable streak, and the dreaded periwinkle squiggle.”
When the President draws a red line, he had bloody well better be prepared to do something dramatic if it is crossed. When he responds as he did above he makes a fool of himself and thereby makes a fool of the United States. This goes well beyond his policy, or lack thereof, on Syria. His ability to manage the situation in Iran depends on the power of his word. If the Iranians know that he doesn’t mean what he says, they can safely ignore any warnings he issues regarding their nuclear program. The Israelis now know, if they didn’t before, that his assurances to them are nothing they can rely on.
I am not arguing here in favor of military intervention in Syria. I am not sure that we have any idea how to effectively intervene in that nation’s civil war. Providing lethal aid to the rebels, meaning weapons, and perhaps grounding the Syrian air force, might have made sense earlier in the game. We might, and I repeat, might, have been able to nourish moderate forces among the insurgents and saved thousands of lives. Now the country has been flooded by foreign fighters whose love of the United States is not noticeable. That is the situation that the ditherer in chief now faces.
What strikes me as so damning in the President’s pitiful remark is not only that he apparently didn’t think the red line through before he drew it but that he doesn’t seem to have thought about it since. Can his staff really be so incompetent that no one anticipated the question? The only explanation is no one had been working on it until walked out to face the press. That would help explain why it was delayed and then delayed again.
The rest of Mr. Obama’s remarks on Tuesday were almost as weak. When asked why he was so ineffective in getting his agenda through Congress, he answered that it was all their fault and that it is not his job “to somehow get them to behave.” Of course that is precisely his job. That is the reason the Constitution gives him the veto power: so he has some leverage in exercising leadership over the legislative branch. To use that power effectively, he has to form relationships with the leadership in both houses and this is something the President has never shown any interest in doing.
No one in my lifetime has come to the Presidency as innocent of any actual experience in leadership as Barack Obama. It is entirely possible that he will leave office with that innocence largely intact.
Editor's Note: Ken Blanchard is our political columnist from the right. For a left-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Cory Heidelberger every other Wednesday on this site.