Beltway Confidential

Post Fact Check columnist: Obama's 'red line' comments aren't 'Pinocchio' worthy

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Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Barack Obama,The Washington Post,Syria

In a genuinely baffling article, Washington Post fact check columnist Glenn Kessler argues that while, yes, President Obama and his administration officials have attempted to rewrite history on his Syria and chemical weapons "red line" comments, this doesn't amount to an untruth.

That's because Kessler is pretty sure Obama meant to say something slightly different in the first place. Something along the lines of what they're saying now -- that it was never just Obama's red line. Obama merely "bungled" the language. So his latest red line comments deserve no rap on the knuckles.

Kessler has a sliver of a point, but it takes an extreme amount of hairsplitting to get there and ultimately it is still not convincing. Let's try to unpack this.

Among those who made the case that Obama had engaged in a "big lie" regarding his Syria policy was Washington Examiner's own Conn Carroll. The argument is that Obama first used the red line comment regarding chemical weapons on Aug. 20, 2012.

Here's what Obama said:

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.

Carroll notes: "'A red line for us.' 'My calculus.' 'My equation.' As of August 2012, there was no doubt in Obama's mind whose red line it was."

This stance was repeated by administration officials several times. Carroll cites two other occasions.

Kessler even notes one instance Carroll overlooked — an April letter to Congress on president's Syria's policy. The relevant section reads: "[T]he president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons — or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups — is a red line for the United States of America."

This claim that it was the US's red line was then abruptly dropped by Obama during a Wednesday news conference in Stockholm: "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

Secretary of State John Kerry made the same argument in Senate testimony Tuesday: "Some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line."

Public policy issues can be tangled and complicated but this would appear to be an example of when things are cut and dried: Obama clearly said he was staking out a red line on Syria and chemical weapons. Syria then crossed that very line. Under pressure, Obama and his officials are now trying to claim he never said it was his red line despite a historical record that clearly contradicts that.

Kessler says no, that's not really the case. His main argument is that Obama reportedly wandered off his talking points in August 2012, citing a New York Times article that Obama's comments "stunned" his aides. The words "red line" were Obama's own unscripted contribution.

A former foreign policy reporter, Kessler explains: "[O]ne rule of thumb was that prepared statements should be given more weight than off-hand statements at news conferences. Prepared statements often were the result of careful staff discussions and thus generally provided a better sense of the actual policies of an administration."

Ok, so Obama wandered off track once. What about all of the other incidents were other officials repeated "red line"? Kessler explains they decided to just run with it: "[T]he White House staff decided they could not take it back and even considered it a useful example of firm presidential leadership."

But really, in their heart of hearts, Kessler is certain they never really meant it. He puts a lot of weight on a comment Obama made in an April 30 press conference where he subtly rewrote his earlier comments to say he meant not just the US but the whole world: "[W]hen I said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn’t ... a position unique to the United States."

Kessler concludes: "[T]he president apparently was never comfortable with his own words. So when new talking points were crafted to make this line seem less like an 'Obama red line' and more like a world-backed red line, the president bungled the language again. He made it appear as if he was denying he had called it a red line, when that was obviously not the case" (Emphasis added).

Well, I cannot claim the kind of insight into Obama's thinking that Kessler can, so who knows? Maybe Obama did trip over his own rhetoric. I fail to see how that makes any difference whatsoever though.

Here's the bottomline: Obama did indeed declare a red line regarding Syria and chemical weapons. It is impossible to read his comments as being anything other than a declaration of his own's administration policy. The fact that Obama may have wandered off his talking points does nothing to change this fact. Really, it ought to bolster it since it indicates that this was what was really on Obama's mind at the time.

Despite several opportunities to walk this declaration back, not did Obama and officials not do so but they repeatedly reiterated the red line stance. As Kessler himself notes, they did this because it was politically useful at the time. (They "even considered it a useful example of firm presidential leadership.)

Only now that it has become politically awkward for them as they seek a vote on Syria action is the administration retroactively trying to recast the comments as meaning something else. Presidents may make history but they don't get to rewrite it.

I don't mean to Pick on Kessler, who has been gracious about Past criticism from me, but it is genuinely aggravating that some many good reporters seem to go to great lengths to give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Rather than special pleading on behalf of the White House, what it — and country — needs is more skepticism.

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