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A red-line erased, and prudently so

At his press conference today, President Obama took the same position on Syria that his spokesmen have previewed. It’s a lawyerly, two-part position. First, we don’t know for sure that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. Second, even if it has, this is just one factor in our analysis of what to do (or not do).

The first part may be true, and after Iraq we should have less confidence in what we think we know about what’s going on in places to which we have limited access. But I suspect the administration of imposing a nearly impossible standard of knowledge in this instance. Assad is unlikely to invite Obama’s representative along on a strafing run. Yet one senses that nothing less would satisfy the administration’s standard.

But none of this matters because the second point is the key one, and here I think the president is right.

Assad is a butcher. He is said to have killed at least 70,000 of his people. The humanitarian case for intervention is rock solid whether or not he has used chemical weapons.

But there are substantial risks associated with intervening in Syria. One is that we will cause radical Islamists to come to power. These risks must be taken into account even if Assad has used chemical weapons, and they do not diminish if he has.

Obama’s mistake, then, was to describe the use of chemical weapons as a “red line”. His back-peddling is well-advised.

Republican hawks ask what it will tell Iran if Obama draws a red line and then erases it. It’s a fair question. My answer is: nothing Iran doesn’t already know.

And we should also ask what it will tell Iran if we act at this late against Assad’s faltering regime on the theory that he has crossed a line. The answer, I think, is: the same thing our intervention in Libya told Iran — nothing of any consequence to its decision on whether to continue the quest for nuclear weapons.

Syria at this point is low-hanging, though not terribly tempting, fruit. Iran understands that it is nothing like Syria. Involving ourselves in Syria will not intimidate Iran’s leaders.

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