Here’s what President Obama said in unprepared remarks about the Syrian civil war in response to a reporter’s question during a press conference held August 20, 2012:

I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation. (emphasis supplied)

There is nothing inherently meaningful in what Obama said.  What, exactly, does it mean to say that seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized would be a “red line”?  Why would such a thing be a red line and not a green circle or a purple triangle? 

Obama didn’t complete the metaphor.  If he meant that using chemical weapons would be crossing some sort of threshold of allowable behavior, a red line, if you will, that is not what he said.  He said moving or using chemical weapons would be a red line. 

And a red line doesn’t even work well as a metaphorical threshold between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  Red lines are what banks, in the past, drew around minority and impoverished districts, refusing to lend money to businesses and individuals within them.   Red lines are what an English teacher uses to point out poor grammar, spelling or sentence structure.  Red lines split hockey rinks into sections for play, like lines on a football field.  Red lines are how contractual clauses and phrases are struck from the bargain during negotiations.  A red circular line with a straight red line slashing through its center is used to denote prohibited actions. 

Red is the universal color for stop, in both signs and traffic lights.  Red is the color used to indicate dangerous conditions in mechanical performance, from “red-lining” a vehicle’s engine by revving it past its normal operating RPM’s (according to the red limiting lines on the tachometer), to the flashing red light on the dashboard of my helicopter when its transmission lost all its oil pressure in a flight over a Honduran rice paddy.  Red on the dashboard meant danger for the helicopter.  It did not mean an action was prohibited, but that a condition imperiling the continuation of powered flight had become manifest.

Red lines are only awkwardly, and it could be argued, inappropriately, used to delimit the threshold beyond which human behavior is no longer acceptable.   Invoking a “red line” does not immediately bring to mind the image of a line that must not be crossed, or else.  A “line in the sand” is more evocative of the idea.  But since George W Bush, and his daddy, had both employed the “line in the sand” metaphor at various points during their own blustering and bellicose conduct of foreign diplomacy by evening news sound bite, perhaps Obama wanted nothing to do with it. 

Obama has blamed, and continues to blame, his predecessor George W for all his challenges, real and imagined.  So perhaps blurting out the closest sounding metaphor he could remember off-the-cuff that couldn’t be also attributed to George W or his daddy seemed correct in the premises. 

Obama’s supporters believe themselves the intellectual superiors of former supporters of George W, manifest in their candidate’s superior command of the language.  Intellectual snobs always truss their feelings of superiority with communicative eloquence.  Imagine the irony if the confidence at superior eloquence afforded Obama by his supporters caused him to choose, because his predecessor never used it, an awkward metaphor that leads him to ruin.

That most people probably understood what Obama probably meant by his contorted metaphor isn’t good enough when blood and treasure are at stake.  Foreign policy pronouncements should not be tailored as chest-thumping exercises for the domestic polity.  Foreign leaders hear everything an American president publicly says.  It’s best that foreign policy pronouncements for public consumption be carefully and thoughtfully tailored to send the proper message.   Obama would not be in this mess had he simply proclaimed something to the effect that the deployment and use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be of great concern to the United States, and that we would be monitoring the situation closely. 

George W and his daddy were no better at this than is Obama.  But can anyone forget, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  That was a public pronouncement of a foreign policy value that resonated, but without hamstringing US options in the foreign policy arena.   Drawing a “red line” around or through or whatever was the proper extension of the metaphor regarding chemical weapons, even as awkward as it seemed at the time and still does, did just the opposite.  It painted the US into a corner, making some sort of response imperative if the red line were crossed or violated.  Though the metaphor was awkward, it clearly obligated the US to do something if chemical weapons were used in the Syrian civil war. 

Then Obama took it all back, in a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden on September 4, 2013:

I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line.  My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.

It is quite interesting how Obama disassociates himself from the international community, and even his own United States of America, and its Congress.  His credibility isn’t on the line.  It is the whole world’s credibility, and particularly America’s, that is at stake here.  (Does Obama believe, like so many right wing nuts, that he’s not American?).  Obama apparently doesn’t quite understand that his credibility and the credibility of the US are intricately interwoven at the moment, as he is its president. 

He regrettably fails to withdraw the awkward “red line” metaphor, instead opting to extend it to the whole world, which he later explains is because world governments representing “98% of the world’s people” ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Which is more or less true, but governments representing at least about a third of the world’s people (China, Russia, et al) are adamantly opposed to there being any US action to interdict the crossing of the world’s red line. 

Where Obama’s confident loquaciousness and eloquence really fails him is in the rump of the last quoted sentence.  “Because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important” implies just the opposite of what Obama advocates.  Giving lip service to something means to carry the pretension that it matters.  If all that the US and world do is give lip service to international norms on the usage of chemical weapons, then the US and the world needn’t get overly concerned over whether or not the norms are violated. 

This parsing of Obama’s statements might seem like an overwrought semantic inquisition.   But it matters what presidents say, particularly in the arena of foreign relations.  The Syrian people who might be the object of an Obama-led military intervention in their country probably would like to know exactly where Obama stands on things, and why.  Obama’s prevarications have made discerning his and the US’s position on the matter practically impossible.  

All the Syrians can really know at this point is that the US political leadership, and the leadership of a few other countries that don’t matter militarily, has a moral aversion to the use of chemical weapons for the dirty work of killing that war involves.   And that the US political leadership, i.e., the Obama Administration, believes the Assad regime in Syria to have deployed and used chemical weapons.   Beyond that, things are clear as mud.  What, if anything, might be done to the Syrian people to punish its extant government for possibly using chemical weapons on its people is not clear.   Whether the alleged use of chemical weapons is nothing more than a pretext for war, such as the possession of them was in Iraq, is also not clear.  Nobody knows, apparently including Obama, what the US intends with all this jawboning about chemical weapon usage in a faraway place that in no way poses a threat to American security.   All the metaphorizing (my word) aside, nobody knows what are Obama’s ulterior motives in this imbroglio of his own creation, or if he even has any.

Obama has been accused by many on the right as being Marxist in his political philosophy.   Considering how closely the march to Syrian war is following the Iraq war script in 2003, they might be on to something.  It was Karl Marx who said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”  This should therefore be the tragic phase of repetition, but it’s hard to see how the whole thing hasn’t up to now been anything but farce. Or perhaps the tragic portion has already happened.  There were 100,000 dead Syrians before anyone seemed to care.  But when 1.5% of that number is alleged to have died by chemical weapons, Obama goes all metaphorical on us.  So, hopefully, we’ve got past the tragic phase.  There is no doubting this is farce.