Today, at his press conference in Stockholm, President Obama raised many a hackle by saying,
“First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” Barack Obama said today at a press conference in Stockholm. “The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are [sic] abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war.”
The President’s critics take this as yet another of his habitual accountability dodges, even though, for once, he didn’t blame George W. Bush. I will give the President the benefit of the doubt here, as he was speaking extemporaneously and is infamously imprecise when he is not delivering a prepared speech. He is saying that the bright line prohibition on chemical and germ warfare was not devised by him, that it is a matter of international law of long-standing, and that his red-line statement only re-affirmed the United States’ pre-existing obligation, in his view, to take action when such a line is crossed. I have no problem with that; the problem is, as this episode has shown, that President Obama did not and does not mean what he said, and the consequences he has devised for the crossing of that red line by the Assad government manage to be weak, insignificant, inadequate, cynical, cruel, dangerous, misdirected, ill-timed and illegal (under international law) all at the same time. That’s quite an accomplishment, but not one I’d want my mother to hand on the fridge.
The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, who, at his best, delivers a clarity of ethical analysis and a precision of language that are unsurpassed in U.S. punditry, moved on from mocking the latest red line clarification to an excellent discussion of why the credibility of the American President, and leaders generally, is so important. Credibility is the practical result of integrity: that is the ethical virtue President Obama’s handling of this matter betrayed.
You should read his whole commentary here. This is the key passage:
“Setting a red line isn’t the only thing Obama denied. As the BBC reports: “Mr Obama said he did not believe he had risked his credibility by asking Congress to vote–something he was not constitutionally obliged to do. ‘My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line,’ he said. ‘America and Congress’s credibility is on the line, because we give lip-service to the notion that these international norms are important.’ Where to begin with this muddle? How about with “lip service”? That idiom means words not backed up by deeds. If one is giving lip service, one has no credibility. And who are the “we” who “give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important”? Why, “America and Congress.” All of us! Well, except him, of course.
“Or maybe especially him. After all, if he is acknowledging that his words are mere lip service, then his credibility is not on the line. It’s shot. So Obama evidently agrees with the conservative interventionist argument in favor of authorizing military force: that the president’s inconstancy has destroyed his credibility, and therefore Congress must shore up America’s credibility by giving its assent (even though he claims he does not need it) to him, so that he will back up his words with actions. This column does not disagree with that argument, but we do have some difficulty wrapping our mind around it. The basic problem is the idea of credibility. At its most concrete, it is a personal attribute. To oversimplify a bit, a man’s credibility depends on the congruence between his words and his actions.
“We speak of institutional credibility too, which depends on the congruence between an institution’s “words” (policies) and its “actions”–i.e., actions undertaken by individuals acting on the institution’s behalf. Institutional credibility and personal credibility are related, but a credible institution need not be populated entirely by credible individuals. The importance of an individual’s credibility depends on his role in the institution. A paperboy who is a pathological liar has no influence on the credibility of the newspaper (except maybe its circulation department). A reporter who is a pathological liar does. An institution can maintain and even enhance its credibility by dealing with threats from within swiftly and forthrightly, as when a reporter is discovered to have fabricated stories and the newspaper immediately terminates his employment and retracts his work.
“Institutional credibility depends above all on the credibility of its leaders and decision-makers. The American political system distributes decision-making authority among three branches of government, only one of which has a clear leader. That, of course, would be the president. Does it make sense to speak of preserving “America’s credibility” if the president, who is not expected to leave office for quite some time (three years, four months, two weeks and two days, to be exact) has no credibility and, if we take him at his word, no interest in developing any? Yes, but it’s counterintuitive to say the least. America is greater than the man who is president at any given time, and the president’s decision-making authority is not absolute. Thus what Congress does and does not do will have some effect on America’s credibility, both now and in 2017 and thereafter.
“But Congress’s capacity in this regard is marginal. The president is the most visible symbol of the American body politic. The president’s determination to shirk the responsibility of his position cannot help but corrode America’s credibility, even if other leaders make the maximal possible effort to limit the damage.”