Foreign leaders pay attention to Obama's words, not the spin

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President Barack Obama thinks he can say anything and get away with it.

On matters domestic, that's pretty much been true. No matter what he says, most in the news media cover for him. And "low information" voters are really, really low information. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in April found that 42 percent of Americans don't know Obamacare is the law of the land.

But foreign leaders pay close attention to what the president of the United States says, and they can't be spun by the talking heads on television news. That's why Mr. Obama's clumsy efforts to erase the "red line" he drew in Syria are certain to cause America grief.

To recap for "low information" voters: There's a civil war in Syria between forces loyal to dictator Bashar Assad and a rebel coalition dominated by Islamists with ties to al Qaida. The rebels appear to be motivated chiefly by religion. Mr. Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, in a country that is 74 percent Sunni.

The Syrian civil war is important both because of where Syria is (it borders on Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq), and because Syria is Russia's closest ally in the Middle East, the closest ally of the mullahs in Iran, and (after Iran) the strongest supporter of Hezbollah, the radical Shia militia that controls southern Lebanon.

The rebels were winning, but a stalemate has developed since Mr. Assad has shown he'll kill as many Syrians as he needs to to cling to power (about 70,000 have died so far).

Mr. Assad should step down, but the United States won't intervene militarily to oust him unless Mr. Assad uses chemical weapons, Mr. Obama said during a news conference last August:

"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."

Syria has used chemical weapons against the rebels, says the prime minister of Turkey. That's "very likely true," says the British government. U.S. intelligence agencies think Mr. Assad has used sarin gas at least twice, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters April 25.

Mr. Obama responded to the crossing of his red line by claiming he didn't have enough evidence to act:

"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don't have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," he said at a news conference April 30.

"What is this? 'CSI: Damascus?"' snorted columnist Charles Krauthammer.

"In turning the matter into an international 'CSI' case, Mr. Obama may have set a standard of evidence that could never be met," said The New York Times.

The president's statements were the "starkest example" the world "is devoid of meaningful leadership," said Frida Ghitis, world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald.

Evidently his red line was drawn with disappearing ink, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

To help Mr. Obama back out of his implied commitment, "senior officials" told The New York Times his original red line remark was "off the cuff," and "unscripted."

The day after the Times story appeared, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the red line remark was intended and deliberate.

"You know you're in trouble when you can't even get your walk-back story straight," Mr. Krauthammer said.

Most journalists happily accept White House spin, even if it contradicts the spin of the day before. Foreign leaders do not, as Secretary of State John Kerry found out last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin kept him twiddling his thumbs at the Kremlin for three hours before meeting with him, the London Daily Mail reported.

Michael Ledeen's sources tell him Mr. Kerry also had to wait two hours to check into his hotel because the Russians said his rooms weren't ready. Never in the darkest days of the Cold War was a U.S. secretary of State treated with such contempt.

His humiliation of Mr. Kerry says much about how Mr. Putin views this administration in the wake of Mr. Obama's red line bluster and fold. Mr. Kerry's willingness to endure it suggests Mr. Putin's assessment is correct.

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Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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