Obama’s Red Line, Revisited
On the last Saturday of August 2013, Labor Day weekend, the United States was once again about to go to war in the Middle East.
Less than two weeks earlier, in the middle of the night on August 21, the Syrian military had attacked rebel-controlled areas of the Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, killing nearly 1,500 civilians, including more than 400 children. Horrific video footage showing people with twisted bodies sprawled on hospital floors, some twitching and foaming at the mouth after being exposed to sarin gas, had ricocheted around the world. This brazen assault had clearly crossed the “red line” that President Barack Obama had enunciated a year earlier—that if Assad used chemical weapons, it would warrant U.S. military action.
Heading into the long weekend, the Pentagon had made plans for round-the-clock staffing, since we thought the military operation would start over the holiday. As the assistant secretary of cefense for international security affairs, I had been involved in the deliberations and planning for the strikes. Yet early Saturday morning, I received a call from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s office with surprising news: The president had called Hagel late the night before and told him he “wanted to explore another option.” Instead of ordering strikes immediately, the president wanted to pump the brakes and first go to Congress to ask for its authorization.