In his August 26th briefing on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry made clear the urgency and gravity with which the Obama administration is considering its response to what Western consensus deems to have been a chemical attack on civilians by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Though President Obama has since stated that a course of action has not yet been decided, Kerry all but swore to its imminence:
At President Obama’s direction, I’ve spent many hours over the last few days on the phone with foreign ministers and other leaders. The Administration is actively consulting with members of Congress and we will continue to have these conversations in the days ahead. President Obama has also been in close touch with the leaders of our key allies, and the President will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.
Kerry also spoke forcefully of the shock dealt to the “conscience of the world” by the attack in Syria, condemning such indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians as a “moral obscenity.” Reasonable people can and do disagree about the appropriate role of the United States in the world’s response to Assad, about the selectivity of American concern, about the propriety of elevating chemical weapons use above so much other atrocity, but there is little room to consider the attack anything but an act that “defies any code of morality,” as Kerry put it.
In the churning debates on American response there is constant reference to Obama’s August 2012 remarks on his “red line” in Syria. In a press release yesterday, for example, House Speaker John Boehner presented Obama with a series of trenchant questions regarding action on Syria. He began, though, by noting the situation’s implications for “America’s credibility across the globe,” before challenging the President to defend his “red line”:
Since March of 2011, your policy has been to call for a stop to the violence in Syria and to advocate for a political transition to a more democratic form of government. On August 18, 2012, you called for President Assad’s resignation, adding his removal as part of the official policy of the United States. In addition, it has been the objective of the United States to prevent the use or transfer of chemical weapons. I support these policies and publically agreed with you when you established your red line regarding the use or transfer of chemical weapons last August.
Now, having again determined your red line has been crossed, should a decisive response involve the use of the United States military, it is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action–which is a means, not a policy–will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy.
Talk radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh went so far as to suggest that the “red line” itself, rather than the horrible scenes in Syria, is the administration’s main consideration. His take is characteristically overblown, and yet one can see echoes of more mainstream concern in his remarks:
So, “Rush! Rush! Rush! What are we gonna do about Syria?” Folks, you’re missing the point if you think this is about Syria. This is not about Syria. The issue is, “What do we do about Obama’s red line gaffe?” Obama said that if the Syrians did X, it would be crossing a red line. Well, they’ve done X. According to John Kerry (Lurch), they’ve done X. So now the real issue as far as Washington (that would be “Warshington” for Newt and everybody else in the media) and the Democrat Party is: How do we deal with—and what do we do about—Obama’s red line gaffe?
Now, don’t misunderstand. I mean, as serious as a chemical attack (if it’s real) might be, the real focus is on how do we cover for what Obama said.
Setting aside the fact that Obama’s actual “red line” language was much less definitive than the threat it’s been cast as, this widespread reduction of an extremely complex global political calculus to a simple reckoning over a single line from a year-old press conference should be troubling to anyone with deep reservations about any use of military force. The words of politicians absolutely matter, but should the compulsion to treat every word as the last word really carry such weight?
In Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, his forthcoming political memoir, Michael Ignatieff recalls being struck by the use of language in politics after leaving academia for a seat in the Canadian House of Commons:
If you’ve spent your life as a writer, journalist and teacher, nothing prepares you for the use of language once you enter the political arena. It is unlike any word game you have ever played. You may fancy yourself as a communicator, but the first time you step up on a political platform, you can have the weird feeling that you have walked into Woody Allen’s film Bananas, in that sequence where the guerilla leader changes the official language of his Latin American country to Swedish. You leave a charitable realm where people cut you some slack, finish your sentences and accept that you didn’t quite mean what you said. You enter a world of lunatic literal-mindedness where only the words that come out of your mouth actually count. You also leave the world where people forgive and forget, where people let bygones be bygones. You enter the eternal present, where every syllable you’ve ever uttered, every tweet, Facebook post, newspaper article or cringe-inducing photograph remains in cyber-space forever for your enemies to use against you.
The gotcha games of the forever campaign are what they are, and won’t soon change. But for old transcripts to drive foreign policy, for these semantic shakedowns to affect American military intention, for the political world’s warped demand for linguistic fidelity to play such a role in a decision certain to cost lives somewhere, would not that, too, defy any code of morality?