Enormous consequence

664px-Jurvetson_-_Barack_Obama_on_the_Primary_(by)This was President Obama’s position in August 2012:

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

So who are the “we” who have been “very clear to the Assad regime”? The previous paragraph and the conclusion of this one make it clear. The statement begins “I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation” and goes on to argue that the use of chemical weapons would change this. It would be something “we cannot have”. It would also change “my calculus” and “my equation”. The president is following the convention of referring to the administration as “we” while using it interchangeably with “I” or “my”, since there is no distinction between the president’s policy and that of the administration.

However, the president now has a new policy. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line, The world set a red line.” In one sense that is true. “The world” – or rather the signatories of the Geneva Convention – did indeed first declare the use of chemical weapons to be unacceptable. But it was the President of the United States – specifically, this President of the United States – who stated unequivocally that it was a red line for his policy: that it would change his calculus.

As for the thing that “we cannot have” – we have it. So what is the change in the calculus? We are still left in the dark about this, but we were assured 12 months ago that there would be “enormous consequences” if the ‘red line’ was crossed. As yet, we have seen no consequences, enormous or otherwise.

We do know that the president claims to have made “two decisions” on this question. Either he misunderstands the meaning of the word “decision” or he has made two decisions, the second of which was not to reveal the first. For what followed his assertion that he had made two decisions was a statement that the US “should strike Syria. If that were the recommendation of this column, one could, at a stretch, call it a decision. That is what this column does: make recommendations. But this was from the President of the United States. He doesn’t merely decide what the US military should do: he gets to decide what it is going to do. A decision – given that the speaker is the president – would be to issue an order to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Following this expression of preference, the president said he was asking congress to make a decision. Asking someone else to make a decision is not a decision – even when accompanied by a mild recommendation. He could have told congress that we “must” strike, had he thought the matter important enough: if, for example, the use of chemical weapons was something “we cannot have”.

At the time of writing, the Washington Post has identified 223 congressmen at least leaning against military action and only 25 in favor. 217 would be sufficient to guarantee defeat of a resolution. So we “cannot have” the use of chemical weapons, but the “enormous consequences” of their use are a recommendation to congress, which it is likely to reject.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

 

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