Of “red lines” and red herrings

Chuck Hagel has announced that the United States believes, “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people. Taken literally, Hagel’s statement makes no sense. No one — and no entity — can believe something with varying degrees of confidence. What Hagel means, I assume, is that the relevant players within our government believe that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people, and there is disagreement among these plalyers as to how certain they are about this.

Meanwhile, the intelligence communities in other key countries, including Israel, have reached the same conclusion with a high level of confidence. Perhaps it was public pronouncements to this effect that caused Hagel to make his announcement.

Hagel’s announcment is significant because President Obama previously has declared that the use by Assad of chemical weapons on his own people would cross a “red line” and constitute a “game changer.” Now that our government believes he has crossed that line, a presumption arises that the U.S. should take action.

But here’s where Hagel’s “varying degrees of confidence” come into play. The administration is saying that, although the evidence indicates Syrian use of chemical weapons, the evidence isn’t conclusive. And it cites our experience with Saddam Hussein and WMD for the proposition that intelligence assessments can be flawed.

It’s a fair point, but I don’t think it’s the main one. The key point is that Syrian use of chemical weapons shouldn’t be seen as a “game changer,” and Obama never should have spoken of a “red line.”

Assad is a despicable butcher. He has already killed tens of thousands of his own people — the figure one usually sees is roughly 70,000. In the context of this record, his use of chemical weapons doesn’t meaningfully change the situation.

If U.S. assistance would cause Assad’s downfall AND lead to his replacement by a decent, non-radical Islamist regime, we should help topple him regardless of whether he has used chemical weapons. And if toppling Assad would likely lead to his replacement by a radical Islamist regime, we shouldn’t help topple him regardless of the chemical weapons issue. If anything, the prospect of Assad’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamists militates slightly against facilitating his demise.

In sum, I believe that Obama is correct to find excuses not to follow the logic of his misguided rhetoric on Syria. If intervenion is the way to go — and I doubt that it is — the reason is not because a “red line” has been crossed.

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