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Obama Crosses His Own Red Line

The president turns a blind eye to Syria's use of chemical weapons

Pierre Bédat/Flickr

There is almost nothing worth saying that is not worth saying again. Sense may be conveyed efficiently, in a single utterance of sufficient clarity; but meaning amasses and accrues, it is not stated but mined, and this requires a return to what was said, and then another return, and then another. It requires repetition. Kierkegaard remarked, premonitorily, that “one becomes weary only of what is new.” Epiphanies, our secular mysticism, are barren freaks of experience unless they are made to serve as beginnings, and raptures are succeeded by chores. And yet repetition is an ordeal for human expression, a trap, because what it gives it may take away. Out of revelations it makes regularities and routines. What gains by repetition also loses by it. Religious people know about the deadening effects of ritual and liturgy, about the tedium of the holy; they search (some of them) for ways to refresh their practices and not merely duplicate them. In art, the problem of repetition is dauntingly common. It has been said of more than one great writer that he had only one story to tell, and meant as praise. In music, where the problem of repetition found its solution in the form of theme-and-variations (rather like the imprecise parallelisms of Biblical poetry), the attempt to eliminate repetition for the sake of a pure and perfectly concise statement led to the exquisite aridities of Webern, one of whose pieces is thirteen seconds long. It is beautiful, but it is a stunt. A life without repetition is a life without development, a life of itches and inklings, a parade of first times, without commitments and institutions; in its crackling way, a dull and shallow life. We should learn to sustain our stimulations and make our redundancies into riches. There are no synonyms.

This brings me—be warned, I am about to lower the level—to politics. Political discourse is repetitive or it is not serious. It is addressed to conscience, not to sensibility; and so the tenacity of argument matters almost as much as the integrity of argument. Political language is not supposed to be interesting, except tactically, for the purpose of persuasion. “Interesting” is an aesthetic category. Loveliness, and even wit, is apolitical—in other contexts, a reason to prize them. The condition of political oratory in America is deplorable, but not because eloquence is a guarantee against error: some of the most refined language in American history was uttered on behalf of the slave power. Where there is urgency, it is not a sin to be raw or tiresome. It is a sin to desist. Conviction can make one a bore; and in this sense the world is changed bybores. If one believes that the village is burning, then one must proclaim over and over that the village is burning. One must also show that the village is in fact burning.

In this spirit of obnoxious relentlessness, I want to say: Syria Syria Syria. But this is more than the peroration that Carthage must be destroyed. There is now a variation on the theme: call it the vanishing red line. It appears that in March a chemical weapon was used in Khan al-Asal in the province of Aleppo. It is not clear what kind of chemical it was. There was a stench of chlorine at the atrocity, where 25 people were killed, and those who survived it suffered respiratory problems of varying severity. Nobody believes that the poisoned rocket was fired by the rebels. So Obama has a problem. On August 20, 2012, he declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian dictator is his “red line”: “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” After the attack at Khan al-Asal, he said: “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.” That was almost a month ago. To establish the facts, the United Nations is attempting to dispatch a team of experts to Syria, and to that end it has begun to negotiate with the regime about “access and other modalities.” Damascus seeks changes to the “legal and logistical parameters” proposed by the U.N. Office of Disarmament Affairs. Get it? The game is on. The diplomats will parse and stall. The fact-finders will take their time. The trail will go cold. The taboo will have been broken. The slaughter will continue. And Assad’s own calculus and equation—his fundamental strategic assumption that he will not be met by Western intervention—will be vindicated. 

I imagine that Obama is not keen to have it verified that his red line was crossed. This would require him to repudiate his policy of passivity. He would have to make adjustments to his chilling composure. The objective of the White House has not been to protect the Syrian people and the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, which is to say, to protect the ideals and the interests of the United States. The objective of the White House has been to protect the president’s decision. The president ruled that there will be no decisive American action and there will be no decisive American action. He knows best. One hears of debates at the White House about its Syrian equanimity, which is finally becoming a bit of an embarrassment, but the impression the White House gives is rather of a bureaucratic enforcement of consensus and a dogmatic adherence to the sagacity at the top. In the matter of a response to chemical weapons the president is no doubt haunted by the war in Iraq. That war may have the ironic consequence of exchanging one kind of American credulity for another: the impossibility of not believing in such a threat will be replaced by the impossibility of believing in such a threat. We will have lurched from one anti-empirical mode to another. I suggest that the president worry less about Baghdad in 2003 and more about Halabja in 1988. The arc of history is shorter than he would like it to be, and it is bending.