This is just a quick piece. I am not going to try to fully re-litigate President Obama’s decision to not enforce his red line in Syria. However, I want to begin by noting one of the most critical pieces of information in this entire debate. The president was being pushed to go to war by virtually everyone, and his own Intelligence Chief wouldn’t swear to him that Assad was responsible for the Sarin attack.

Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.

In fact, when John Kerry tried to present the evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his performance was so risible and inept that I was on the verge of giving up entirely on the Obama administration.

This should be the beginning point for judging what the president did about his “red line.”

But it nowhere enters into the conversation when Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl discusses this history. Obama’s failure to attack a country over something he isn’t sure they are actually responsible for doing is cast as the cause of all manner of worldwide aggression.

…I heard from dozens of foreign ministers and other senior officials of U.S. allies as they visited Washington in the months and years that followed. Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans and even Indians confided that they were convinced that Obama’s failure to use force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad was directly responsible for China’s subsequent burst of aggression in territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Poles, Lithuanians and French drew a line between the backdown and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As for the Sunni Arabs, Turks and Israelis, it is an article of faith that Obama’s decision accelerated the catastrophe that Syria, and much of the rest of the Middle East, has become.

Amazingly, Jackson Diehl doesn’t provide one quote or even a link to substantiate his allegations. Instead, he circles the square with this:

If Indians and Japanese, Poles and Latvians, Israelis and Saudis are convinced that the United States damaged its deterrence and invited aggression — and that they must adjust their own policies accordingly — it almost doesn’t matter if Obama is right in insisting that Putin and Xi Jinping took no cues from him. The global conventional wisdom has created its own reality.

Let me translate this for you. Diehl is saying, “It doesn’t really matter if what I’m saying is true because everyone in the world believes it to be true, which I can’t substantiate with even a measly quote from an anonymous deputy foreign minister from some emirate or another. But everyone believes it is true even though I can’t be bothered to find a single link on the whole internet to demonstrate that anyone believes it is true. But it’s true that people believe it even if it isn’t actually true, and this is all Obama’s fault because he didn’t attack first and ask questions later.”

I promised not to re-litigate the whole history here, but there are two additional points that ought to be considered.

First, people scoffed at Gaddafi and Assad when they said their opponents were terrorists and al-Qaeda sympathizers. But, when it came to actual fighting power their claims were true, as soon became obvious. So, supporting the overthrow of either of them comes with a cost that you might be willing to pay or might not be willing to pay. At a certain point, it became obvious that the Israelis and the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian Christians were right, and Assad was better than the alternative. People like Jackson Diehl didn’t want to hear that. They just wanted Obama to follow through on a threat he had made.

Second, what Obama actually did instead of “bombing the shit” out of Syria was work with Russia to remove their stockpile of chemical weapons so the folks we were supposed to be supporting couldn’t get their hands on them. You know, because the folks we were supposed to be supporting were indistinguishable from al-Qaeda.

So, Obama didn’t start a war with a county over an issue his Intelligence Director couldn’t vouch for; he didn’t do everything he could do put al Qaeda in charge of Syria, and he made sure that if al Qaeda did take over all of Syria that they wouldn’t have Assad’s weapons of mass destruction to play with.

But he supposedly showed weakness and lack of resolve!

No wonder Obama is pleased with his decision and contemptuous of the “Washington Playbook” that Jackson Diehl tries to enforce.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at