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May 13, 2013

Statecraft as malpractice

(Continued)

Yes, perhaps chemical weapons were used in Syria, but were “a bunch” used, or even more importantly, “a whole bunch”? Who is to say that the president’s calculus, in keeping with his fearsome warnings, hasn’t “changed”? He used to think about what to do if Syria deployed chemical weapons, and now he is thinking about what to do when it possibly has used chemical weapons.

The president said, “The world is watching,” and true to his word — the world is watching.

For the president to issue a red line without thinking about what he would do if it’s crossed is statecraft as malpractice. It speaks to the solipsism of a president who likes the sonorousness of his own voice and who is so used to striking a pose that it comes as a shock when the world doesn’t cooperate.

White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that the president meant exactly what he said. He just didn’t say anything.

“What he never did and it is simplistic to do so is to say, ‘If X happens, Y will happen,’” Carney explained. Well, he’s never said that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, he will do Y, either. The phantom Syria red line exposes all his declarative statements as potentially rhetorical fluff. Why wouldn’t he litigate his way out of them, as well, when they become inconvenient?

This possibility is noted by friend and foe alike. Surely the Iranians will be even more likely to discount the president’s Churchillian statements of resolve in stopping their nuclear program. Surely the Israelis, who just bombed Iranian missiles in Syria making their way into Lebanon, will be even more likely to believe in no red line except their own. Our other allies around the world, who depend on security guarantees that, at the end of the day, are based only on our word, will wonder, too.

Syria presents no good options, and it is important that we have confidence in the intelligence about chemical weapons (it is possible the rebels used them). But the president should never write rhetorical checks that he can’t or won’t cash. The whole world is always watching.

(c) 2013 by King Features Syndicate

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