Biden on Obama’s Syria Policy: ‘I’m Not a Big Fan of Red Lines’

Patrick Goodenough | September 23, 2016 | 4:45am EDT
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President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House on Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

( – Asked about the Obama administration’s approach towards the crisis in Syria, Vice President Joe Biden said this week he was “not a big fan of red lines,” and questioned the wisdom of calls to get involved militarily.

“Look, I’m not a big fan of red lines,” he said during a discussion on foreign policy hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “I am not a proponent of laying down markers unless you’ve thought through the second, third, and fourth step that you’re going to have to take, and almost assuredly will have to take, in order to accomplish your initial goal.”

In the context of Syria’s civil war and U.S. policy, the red line notion is most often associated with President Obama’s 2012 assertion that the use of chemical weapons in the conflict would be a “red line for us,” one which he said “would change my calculus.”

When the Assad regime went ahead and used chemical weapons against Syrian citizens the following year, killing at least 1,429 people, Obama signaled that he would conduct punitive airstrikes in response, but then backed away.

Critics said the reversal made the U.S. look weak, although the administration maintains that the threat worked, since Syria had then agreed – prodded by its ally, Russia – to surrender its declared chemical weapons stockpile.

Biden characterized the Syrian conflict as hugely convoluted.

“Now, we can easily say we should have bombed and gone in and taken out their air defense system and we should have – well, you know, big nations can’t bluff.”

“You do that, then what’s the next step?” he asked. “What’s the next step you do? Because you know what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is exactly what was happening anyway. The idea that anyone in this room thinks that we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Iraq or ever thought we could from the outset in any near term I would challenge your judgment.”

(Asked by CFR president Richard Haass, Biden confirmed that he meant to say Syria, not Iraq.)

Biden went on to give another reason why military action in Syria would have been a bad idea.

“No foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people,” he said, adding that not a single member of Congress would have supported “any American troops on the ground. Let’s not have self-imposed amnesia here.”

“Some of us argued internally for slightly different approaches but I think on balance the use of significant ground forces which would have been required, in my view, to fundamentally alter the – that administration where it was – I think that would have been a mistake.”

In fact, Obama never threatened to send ground troops into Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack. Administration officials did signal an intention to carry out airstrikes, however, and the case for limited punitive action was made by Secretary of State John Kerry in an August 30, 2013 speech.

“It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens,” he said. “History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.”

“We also know that we have a president who does what he says that he will do,” Kerry said. “And he has said very clearly that whatever decision he makes in Syria, it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open-ended.”

“The president has been clear,” Kerry continued. “Any action that he might decide to take will be a limited and tailored response to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable.”

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