President Obama received a lot of grief over the following remark, which was part of a response to a question from Steve Holland of Reuters.
First of all, I didn't set a red line.
Conservatives were quick to pounce of that, pointing out (frequently supported by a video clip) that Mr. Obama certainly did set a red line against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The critical line was that Mr. Obama was trying to weasel out of responsibility for his own words; however, even his defenders on the left seem mostly to concede that he was contradicting himself.
Unaccustomed as I am to defending the President, I must point out that he was making a perfectly reasonable point. Here is the rest of his remark.
The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous thing that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for. And so, when I said, in a press conference, that my calculus about what's happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn't something I just kind of made up. I didn't pluck it out of thin air. There was a reason for it. That's point number one. Point number two, my credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line. And America and Congress' credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.
The President wasn’t denying that he endorsed the red line. He was saying that it didn’t originate with him; it was already set by the international community and by Congress. All he did was acknowledge it and announce his intent to back it up. That was a reasonable point and the President should have gotten credit for trying to hold the world and Congress to account.
Unfortunately, he miffed it with those opening words that did seem to deny the obvious. He also made a grievous mistake by denying that his own credibility was on the line. It is blatantly obvious that his credibility is on the line. Denying it is an unforced error.
Mr. Obama is great at reading prepared speeches and terrible at responding off the cuff. That is why his staff rarely lets him hold a press conference. He is hardly unintelligent or (as G.W. Bush was) inarticulate. He just won’t do his homework. He had every reason to know that that question was coming and time enough to prepare for it. Yet he was obviously unprepared and it cost him.