Obama: 'I Didn't Set a Red Line' on Syria

Susan Jones | September 4, 2013 | 10:06am EDT
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President Barack Obama at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, at the Rosenbad Building in Stockholm, Sweden. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

(CNSNews.com) - A year ago, President Barack Obama used the phrase "red line" twice, to make the point that Syria's use of chemical weapons "would change my calculations significantly" on intervening in the civil war.

But on Wednesday in Sweden -- echoing comments made by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday -- Obama told reporters, "First of all, I didn't set a red line. 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," and when it passed the Syria Accountability Act, Obama added.

"And so when I said in a press conference (last year), 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, um -- that wasn't something I just kind of made up. I didn't pluck it out of thin air. There's a reason for it."

Flash back to Aug. 20. 2012, when Obama was asked at a news conference if he envisioned using the U.S. military to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

He called Syria a "very tough issue," and urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. He also talked about providing humanitarian assistance the the Syrian opposition, and said he was mulling aid to the rebels.

"I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation," Obama said at that 2012 news conference. "But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical.  That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel.  It concerns us.  We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

"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."

In response to a follow-up question, Obama admitted that he couldn't say he was "absolutely confident" that Syria's chemical weapons were secure.

"What I’m saying is, we’re monitoring that situation very carefully.  We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly."

(Nine days earlier, on Aug. 11, 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the first to use the "red line" phrase. She was in Turkey to discuss growing concerns about the situation in Syria -- and at that time, she told reporters, "Everyone has made it clear to the Syrian regime" that the use of chemical weapons "is a red line for the world.")

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday provided cover for President Obama, telling reporters after a meeting at the White House that Syrian President Bashar Assad had "crossed a line" when he used chemical weapons.

"President Obama did not draw the red line," Pelosi said. "Humanity drew it decades ago, 170-some countries supporting the convention on not using chemicals -- chemical warfare. So it is really something that, from a humanitarian standpoint, cannot be ignored, or else we cannot say never again. Secondly, from a national security standpoint, we have to send a very clear message to those who have weapons of mass destruction of any variety that they should forget about using them.

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